The Web gets real: The democratization of manufacturing

“That’s when I realized: I got robots in China to work for me. And they took PayPal.”

That’s the punchline to Chris Anderson’s anecdote about creating a model blimp kit with his children. After the former Wired editor posted a video of their homemade airship on YouTube, he got requests to buy a kit version. He quickly learned you can’t buy kit parts affordably at retail prices; you have to buy wholesale. One particular search, for the electric motors to power the blimp, led him to Alibaba, a portal for Asian manufacturers. He was able to specify the dimensions, the windings, the shaft length … everything custom. He ordered 5,000 of them at about 17 cents apiece.

When a box arrived a couple weeks later, industrially packed with 5,000 electric motors … well, cue the robot revelation.

Anderson, author of The Long Tail, Free, and Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, was speaking at the Canada 3.0 conference in Toronto on Tuesday about the democratization of manufacturing, the subject of his latest book. Free CAD/CAM software, 3D printers, CNC and laser-cutting services are removing the barriers between ideas and manufacturing, Anderson said.

“Putting formerly industrial tools in the hands of the people changes the world,” he said.

Anderson’s grandfather, a Swiss immigrant in Hollywood, was a studio mechanical engineer by day and inventor by night. He created an automated sprinkler system. But since he didn’t have the resources, it took patents, lawyers, licensing and someone else’s factory to produce what became the Moody Rainmaster.

Spending summers in his grandfather’s workshop, Anderson realized that, in the hands of a master machinist, an industrial lathe is a powerful tool. After they tried to build an engine from two solid blocks of aluminium, Anderson also realized he wasn’t going to be a master machinist.

But much as desktop publishing and online publishing “decredentialized” the graphic design and publishing industries, technology is eliminating the barriers — those of niche technical skills and means of production — between people with ideas for products and the manufacturing of them.

Anderson — who left Conde Naste Publishing to found manufacturing company 3D Robotics — calls these developments the third industrial revolution. The first began in the 1700s with the Spinning Jenny, a device that mechanized the creating of cloth. From that came mass-production, urbanization and the creation of “the infrastructure of modernity” — clean water, sewers, health care and governance, among other elements.

The second was the digital revolution, caused by the personalization of the computer, but with its signature moment in desktop publishing. Publishing was a factory job, requiring typesetters, pressmen and millions of dollars of equipment. With the introduction of Apple’s first laser printer in 1986, anyone could become a publisher. Later, the World Wide Web democratized the distribution of content. The printing factory became a browser button, “liberating a pool of talent.”

“Initially, we made a mess of it, a dog’s breakfast of fonts,” Anderson said. “But we got better at it.”

Think of that age as a dress rehearsal for the age of desktop manufacturing. The past 20 years were spent coming up with new models of innovation; the next 10 will be about applying it to real things in the physical world, Anderson said,

Anderson’s daughters wanted him to buy new dollhouse furniture, which can be expensive and is never to a standard scale. Instead, they were able to download an open source design file — created by Broadway set designer Kacie Hultgren, and uploaded for free use after a production — modify it, and create the furniture on a 3D printer.

“Suddenly, an act of consumption becomes an act of creation,” Anderson said.

The coming generation of kids will feel that “digital design is something regular people do.

And, like the early, self-educated desktop publishing designers, and the early days of awful Web site design, there will be a lot of poor product. But, just like then, we’ll get better, Anderson says.

“Everybody does everything, and the market sorts it out,” he said.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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