Wired's Maker Manifesto

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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    My question is, "Why should we assume the microfactories have to be in China?"

    As long as you can tell the thug "brotherhoods" like the UAW and Machinists' Union to go fuck themselves, you can produce efficiently ion this country, if you wish.

  • ||

    Typing is hard.

    ion

  • ||

    I think you meant "ion"

  • ||

    This trend is very cool, and there's no reason we couldn't do it here more effectively than the Chinese (or others).

  • Sam Grove||

    I am participating in this revolution.

    Don't know about world changing, but has potential.

  • virginia||

    What are you working on, Sam?

  • Sam Grove||

    An electronic product.
    Principles in San Francisco, San Jose, and Taiwan.
    Communication via email and Skype.

    The second comment was about the revolution, not my participation.

  • Kevin Carson||

    Thanks, Jesse.

    The Anderson article was great--there was less stuff on micromanufacturing in *Free* than there was in this article.

    One thing I couldn't figure out from the article, is what those body panels are made out of. They look like molded metal, which would require an expensive stamping press and would seemingly be uneconomical for short production runs. Most OS car projects I've seen use flat pieces of sheet metal that can be cut out on a cutting table, and use a bent steel frame to create the overall shape (resulting in an appearance something like an early Jeep). Chapman mentions using a router to prototype molds, outsourcing mold production, and then outsourcing plastic parts to an injection molding company. I wonder if the body panels are one of those plastic parts?

    If the weight savings from use of carbon fiber and the like are comparable to what Amory Lovins described for the Hypercar, it could probably dispense with the heavy engine blocks developed to move the enormous cars introduced in the '30s; small IC engines were produced by Ford in a factory initially capitalized at $20k (probably a half million or less in today's money). Of course an electric motor could be produced in a small shop scaled to almost any level of demand.

  • Minister of Oomph||

    OK, suppose I have such a hardware design or idea. Where do I start, to get this done in the US? What resources are available and how do you connect to them?

    Staying in the US has great appeal for several reasons, but IP integrity is right up there. Sending designs to China is putting them out there for free -- patents or no patents.

  • Kevin Carson||

    P. Brooks: As shipping costs increase, IMO, the microfactories in China IMO will start disregarding western trademarks, and market stuff minus the brand markup to the local population. A lot of shanzhai factories are already running third shifts to produce parts identical to what they produce for TNCs, for sale to knockoff producers. And as the outlets for the Chinese shops become predominantly local people the owners have face-to-face relationships with, a lot of the transparency problems that have led to phthalate contamination, etc., will improve.

  • jasno||

  • ||

    As shipping costs increase, IMO, the microfactories in China IMO will start disregarding western trademarks, and market stuff minus the brand markup to the local population.

    My understanding is the Chinese have been doing this (producing excess product and selling it on their own) for a long time.


    Carbon fiber is extremely light, extremely strong, and extremely expensive; a lot of applications which are technically appealing are not cost-effective.

  • Death Panelist||

    I'm still holding out for a Star Trek replicator to make my home-designed, ornately adorned sex toys a reality.

  • Brett L||

    I think those of us who are gearheads tend to disregard the distribution aspect. Sure I can set up one of these things in some empty warehouse space and make bespoke products to my heart's content. I can also make consumer grade products in small lots without suffering as much of a scaling barrier as, say, five years ago. But I still lack the distribution channels. Even worse, there isn't really a reason to grow the distribution channels. And the unfinished materials still have to be collected at some form of depot to be shipped to all of these microfactories.

    I love all of these things, and might still try to open one of these deals where you can rent high-grade machine tools by the day (just because I'd love to have access to one), but I'm not sold on it "fixing" the manufacturing drain. Not until the price of bunker fuel becomes the primary cost of getting finished goods to market.

  • Pat||

    +1

  • Old Mexican||

    Brett L,

    The market is genius in determining what items are worth manufacturing on a "micro" scale and which are not. The grade of difficulty in setting up distribution channels will depend on how demand is dispersed and the level of competition, but think about how the first computers were being sold in the US and you will see it is not difficult to create distribution channels that cater to clients without resorting to depots or warehousing enormous quantities of inventory - you can use logistics companies like UPS and FedEx (and if you're a gambler, even the USPS) to distribute your goods.

  • ||

    "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."

    Sadly, this is false. Necessary component omitted.

  • ||

    I think you meant "ion"

    Godfrey Daniel!

    DRAT, and DOUBLE DRAT!

  • ||

    "But I still lack the distribution channels."

    The web is your distribution. I know of many boutique music hardware makers who sell strictly through their websites. Of course it's true that their reach is limited that way, but they don't need to sell mega quantities since their costs and overhead are low.

  • Brett L||

    And they don't replace Sony factories in China.

  • Russ 2000||

    You couldn't use the D.I.Y. disc with the Peter Bagge drawing on it??

  • Jesse Walker||

    Which one was that?

  • Russ 2000||

    I think it's the "Shake it up" one, American power pop 1 or 2. I'm going off memory here, I'm not near my Cd's now.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Thanks. I didn't realize he had done one -- I have three discs in the series, but not either of those.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Staying in the US has great appeal for several reasons, but IP integrity is right up there. Sending designs to China is putting them out there for free -- patents or no patents.

    Ha, that's a silly point to make here. This is Hit 'n' Run, the place where everyone defends property rights--except intellectual property rights! There's no such thing, according to many of the folks here.

    See, it's EASY to circumvent IP rights, so therefore those rights just shouldn't exist! Or something like that.

  • Old Mexican||

    Slut Bunwalla,

    You have posted here many times to know or at least see that IP has NOTHING to do with property nor rights. It is entirely a government-created construct to actually trample on other people's property rights besides the holder of the IP "rights."

    Ideas cannot be property once they spawn in people's minds, and if they are not allowed to spawn then IP pretty much becomes a self-defeating proposition.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Yeah, an idea isn't property. What's that got to do with this? In this case, we're talking about something that's been designed and is ready for manufacture, not just an "idea".

    What you're saying here is that if I come up with an idea for a...I don't know. A new, original type of mug, let's say. I've got the idea. I've drawn up plans, maybe even assembled a crude prototype myself. If I send off the plans for it to acutally go into manufacturing to be sold, and then said manufaturer just gives me the finger and sells the thing on their own, I haven't been wronged? I shouldn't have any legal redress here? This is clearly more than an idea if there are designs and plans and a manufacturer in place.

  • Tyler||

    Maybe you could consider having a contract between you and the manufacturer with an agreed upon method of third party arbitration to settle such disputes before sending them your plans.

    Actually, that would be the common-sense free-market solution to many IP problems, I think.

    Feel free to think about and try out other solutions.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Slut Bondwalla,

    Yeah, an idea isn't property. What's that got to do with this?

    Plenty, if the name of the so-called right is Intellectual Property.

    In this case, we're talking about something that's been designed and is ready for manufacture, not just an "idea".

    Irrelevant - it does not mean the manufacturer has rights over other people's property if other people come up with a very similar product. I will explain below.

    What you're saying here is that if I come up with an idea for a [...]new, original type of mug, let's say. I've got the idea. I've drawn up plans, maybe even assembled a crude prototype myself. If I send off the plans for it to acutally go into manufacturing to be sold, and then said manufaturer just gives me the finger and sells the thing on their own, I haven't been wronged?

    Did you make a contract with him?

    I shouldn't have any legal redress here?

    Did you make a contract with him?

    This is clearly more than an idea if there are designs and plans and a manufacturer in place.

    Depends on what you purported to sell to the manufacturer: an idea, or a set of plans and designs. If you simply sent the designs without having a purchase order or a contract, you're a fool. We're not talking about IP here, but about a very specific product - the set of designs and drawings. The manufaturer and you are making an exchange of title over the designs for money. That has NOTHING to do with IP.

    Instead, if the manufacturer found that later on a competitor is making a similar mug, under IP law, he could sue the competitor for violating his "rights"; however, in reality, the competitor is doing nothing of the sort, since he is simply manufacturing similar mugs using his raw materials, his machines, his installations, his property. IP then pretends to unduly LIMIT a person's rights to use HIS property as HE sees fit. IP ha nothing to do with property rights, instead it is a property transfer scheme, courtesy of the State.

    See Against Intellectual Monopoly, by Michelle Boldrin and David K. Levine

    http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/.....gainst.htm

  • Minister of Oomph||

    @slut -

    I wasn't really referring to "rights" here, just using IP as shorthand.

    The point is that with all else equal, it's a lot easier to protect your plans / designs / schematics / molds etc if you stay in one jurisdiction.

    These aren't ideas but concrete expressions, useful for making a product. If you entrust them to a foreign manufacturer, regardless of contracts or agreements, you're placing them in peril and your level of recourse is nowhere near what it would be if they stayed in the US.

  • Cool Cal||

    "They took our jobs!"

  • Kevin Carson||

    A commenter named "Geltinous" left this under Anderson's article:

    Chris Anderson, why are you so gleeful (and persistent) in your drive to the total elimination of the middle class? Is that really what you want? A world full of grunts who make worthless crap “designed” by over-educated, tech-savvy, workaholic entrepreneurs? Did you forget that people need to be able to BUY your garbage (oh wait, that’s right, it’s all going to be FREE)? Who exactly is going to PAY for stuff in your slaves-and-masters economy?

    Youtube, blogging, and all the other Web 2.0 horse manure has made a lot of money for a tiny elite. Don’t expect this manufacturing “paradigm shift” to do anything different. DO expect it to leave thousands (maybe millions) jobless or not even scraping by, working ungodly hours for less than minimum wage in chemically toxic sweatshops.

    Welcome to the next “The Jungle”, brought to you by the technocrats’ “next Industrial Revolution”.

    Michael Moore, is that you?

  • Old Mexican||

    "Who exactly is going to PAY for stuff in your slaves-and-masters economy?"

    Why do the clueless always think that the middle class has to be composed of overpaid, unionized and specialized factory workers that punch in at 7:30 and punchout at 4:00?

    Do tey really think it would be better to have $27.00 an hour workers making can openers?

  • Kevin Carson||

    P.S. I just read the Gizmodo piece. It's probably correct that Anderson is exaggerating the novelty of micromanufacturing, and that for the most part manufacturing is continuing as it has for "the past thirty years."

    That's technically true, because the micromanufacturing trends Anderson describes are a direct continuation of a process that's been going on for thirty years: the shift of production from old mass-production industry to small job-shops using general-purpose machinery.

    The early stages of the process were described in The Second Industrial Divide, by Piore and Sabel (1984).

    Mass production companies have always shifted production to the craft periphery in bad times, because (as J.K. Galbraith pointed out) investing in expensive product-specific machinery is an enormous gamble that requires a high degree of confidence the machinery can be run at full capacity and its product will be sold at a predictable price.

    The economic stagnation that began in the '79s was the beginning, for the first time, of a permanent secular shift to job-shop production. The trend was facilitated by Japan's development of CNC machinery scalable and affordable for the small factory or shop. That was the technical basis of Emilia-Romagna's networked manufacturing economy, the shops of Shenzhen, and Toyota's and GM's supplier networks.

    By 2000, the amount of manufacturing taking place in job shops like those of Shenzhen exceeded that remaining in traditional mass production floor space.

    The desktop revolution is simply an order of magnitude improvement in the scale and price advances the Japanese began. Now a homebrew CNC router or cutting table can be built for under $1000 in materials, and a microfactory with cutting table,router, drill-lathe-mill multimachine, and 3-D printer can be assembled for $5000 or so. They're doing it at Open Source Ecology's demo site, Factor e Farm.

    Even if the Chinese shops are horrible places to work, Johnson admits they really are the place most production is outsourced to. So there's no reason, with the imploding cost of machinery and the rising costs of distribution, that such shops can't do the same thing in America, owned by the people who work in them.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement