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posted: 9/22/2012 7:26 AM

Will homebrew manufacturing revolutionize the economy?

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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Chris Anderson sounds like the best dad ever. For one thing, as the editor of Wired, he gets to snag review units of the newest tech toys. "We would build robots on Saturday and fly planes on Sunday," he writes in his new book, "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution," about his plans for one "delightfully geeky weekend with the kids."

What's more, as the founder of a hobbyist company called 3D Robotics that produces kits for building unmanned drones, Anderson has access to advanced digital fabrication devices like 3-D printers and laser cutters. When his daughters want to redecorate their dollhouse, they just log on to Thingiverse, an online repository of printable objects, download and modify stuff they like, and hit Print. "We may never buy dollhouse furniture again," he writes.

And then there's Anderson's tendency to get really passionate about playtime. During that geeky weekend in question, for instance, he and the kids built an autopilot system for an RC airplane using Lego Mindstorms parts. The kids lost interest in the project after a few days, but Anderson got so into it that he started two companies -- the aforementioned 3D Robotics and a website called GeekDad that chronicles how to raise kids the Wired way.

If you live in a tech-hipster haven like Berkeley or Brooklyn, there's a good chance you know super-dads like Anderson, or perhaps you're one yourself. To the extent that you've considered the rise of geek dads at all, you probably haven't thought of them as being an especially powerful force in society or the economy. But Anderson argues that he and other makers like him -- not just geek dads but the larger community of enthusiasts who go gaga for things like 3-D printers, the open-source hardware platform Arduino, and the Maker Faire -- aren't mere weekend hobbyists. Anderson sees makers as the second coming of the Homebrew Computer Club, the late-'70s Silicon Valley group that sparked the personal computer industry. Indeed, the makers might build something even bigger.

The PC spawned the ubiquitous Internet, which in turn inspired a social and economic revolution in digital media: the Web, Napster, blogging, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Still, digital media represents only a tiny sliver of the world economy. Now, Anderson argues, the maker movement is bringing the same technical advances that we saw in media -- instant reproduction, endless customization, easy fabrication and much more widely distributed means of production -- to the much larger business of physical things. In the same way that the Web allowed amateurs to become journalists and photographers and filmmakers, these new technologies will let inventive doodlers turn their creations into real stuff. And not just stuff, but stuff that can be made on a large scale and sold to people around the world, competing with the mass-manufactured goods that now dominate our retail shelves. If things go well, we might even see the American economy benefiting from something many of us thought was in permanent decline -- local manufacturing. "You think the last two decades were amazing?" Anderson asks. "Just wait."

As you might have guessed, there's more than a whiff of optimism in "Makers," though don't let that put you off. Optimism is Anderson's mtier, and in his previous books -- "The Long Tail," about the rise of niche products, and "Free," a book that lists for $26.99 ($11 on Amazon) that argues that companies can make money by giving stuff away -- Anderson displayed the same tendency to see only the bright side. In both cases, though, Anderson was on to something, and that's true of "Makers" as well. I'm not sure I believe that new fabrication and manufacturing technologies will prove to be as world-changing as digital media, nor that the maker movement will restore the American manufacturing sector and inspire lots of new small businesses that make things. But Anderson's vision is not implausible. And even if it doesn't pan out the way he says, we'll certainly see some new companies, and lots of better products, thanks to the makers. That's not nothing.

As Anderson describes it, the new movement is built on three technological and social advances. First, there's "rapid prototyping." Today you can design your world-changing widget on a computer, instantly make it real on a 3-D printer, and then go back to the drawing board to refine it. Second, because your designs are all standard CAD files, you can share them with others and borrow other people's designs, allowing for everyone to improve their widgets through remixing. Finally, when you've perfected your widget, you can take advantage of firms like Kickstarter to raise money, then send your designs to commercial manufacturers that will produce your widget in bulk -- even if bulk, for you, means you're making only a few thousand of them.

The larger issue is that, however big the artisanal movement becomes, it's not going to solve -- and it may well accelerate -- the decline in manufacturing jobs. That's because both mass manufacturers and artisanal inventors will build their widgets in factories that are staffed primarily by machines. If you're worried that America doesn't employ enough people who actually make stuff anymore, that will still be the case if lots of artisanal manufacturing companies set up shop here. The only difference will be who owns the machines, and who designed the stuff the machines are pumping out.

And that gets to what might be Anderson's central message: Design is the future. If you want to "make things" in tomorrow's economy, don't aim for working on the factory floor. Instead, you should learn to draw, write code, and use CAD software. More fundamentally, you should learn to invent, to think of new ways to refine old things. I don't know if this is a big enough idea to change the world. But at least you'll be able to change the stuff in the world, and that's a pretty good start.

• Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter.

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