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How can American manufacturing be reinvented to thrive in an era of globalization?


The Makers Are Coming

Chris Anderson argues that homebrew manufacturing will revolutionize the American economy. Is he right?

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Chris Anderson argues that the maker movement is bringing the same technical advances that we saw in media to the much larger business of physical things

Photograph by Larry Busacca.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that! Please submit them here.

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. (I’m not a geek dad, but that’s because my kid’s only 2; as he grows older, I might find myself calling on Anderson for tips.) 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 benefitting 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 métier, 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.

When I chatted with Anderson recently, I asked him about the timeline of his vision. He thinks the maker movement is around where the PC industry was in the mid-1980s—somewhere between the release of the Apple II and the Mac, between a computer that was popular with hobbyists and one that was meant for everyone. Soon, we’ll have 3-D printers that cost about the same as paper printers, we’ll have 3-D design software that’s as easy to use as iMovie, and making physical things will take on the kind of cultural significance that making digital things did in the first dot-com boom. At that point, we’ll notice the products around us begin to change, Anderson says. A lot of what you’ll buy will still come from large companies that make mass-manufactured goods, but an increasing number of your products will be produced by “industrial artisans.” These artisans will produce goods aimed for niche audiences—perhaps you’re a gardener who needs a specific kind of sprinkler head, or maybe you want computer speakers shaped like Mount Rushmore. Because they’ll be able to sell anywhere, and because their goods will command higher prices that mass-manufactured stuff, artisans will be able to build thriving small businesses from their inventions.

The rise of entrepreneurial niche hardware companies sounds like a pretty good thing. The problem is assessing how big a force this could be in the world economy. Anderson thinks it will be huge, but I’m more skeptical. For one thing, I just can’t imagine using that many artisanal goods. Though I have recently gotten into custom-made men’s shirt companies (which do fit the maker mold), I don’t harbor any illusions that I represent the norm. Most men are still probably better served by off-the-rack clothes, and, in general, I can’t think of many products I’d like that I can’t buy at a store. I could certainly be wrong—there might be lots of maker products I’d buy that I don’t know about yet because they can’t be made under the mass-manufactured model. Anderson himself guesses that we might see a 70-30 split in goods—in the future, most things you buy will be the sort of stuff you can get at Wal-Mart, but a significant minority will come from artisans.

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.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that! Please submit them here.

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