Wired editor Chris Anderson announces a new industrial revolution:
Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they're ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital -- the long tail of bits.
Now the same is happening to manufacturing -- the long tail of things.
The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands, or more. They can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.
Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. "Three guys with laptops" used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too....
We've seen this picture before: It's what happens just before monolithic industries fragment in the face of countless small entrants, from the music industry to newspapers. Lower the barriers to entry and the crowd pours in.
Anderson's article has already provoked a skeptical reply from Joel Johnson at Gizmodo. Much of Johnson's critique is caught up in issues that either aren't interesting to me (the question of whether accomplishing something "with more convenience than ever before" is enough to make the process "novel") or lack important context (lousy working conditions in China are certainly a legitimate concern, but so is the fact that the Chinese standard of living has been steadily improving, in part because of those very factories). On the other hand, while I enjoyed Anderson's anecdotes about micro-enterprises in action, I think Johnson's right that some of his reporting is, at best, only loosely related to the article's sweeping thesis.
Read both, then join the conversation in the comment thread below. And while you're at it, check out The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, a book-in-progress by frequent Hit & Run commenter Kevin Carson, who sees the developments described in Wired and predicts even more radical changes than Anderson does.