The Re-industrial Revolution

The revolutionary Maker movement is upon us.

13414678 Three-dimensional or 3D printing, for decades a marginalised activity where the crude fabrication devices were confined to tinkerers, hobbyists and the dusty corners of industrial workshops is coming into its own. Falling prices for increasingly sophisticated, powerful and versatile machines along with an enthusiastic online communities of Makers are rapidly moving 3D printers from industrial curiosities to viable commercial uses and soon, to must-have consumer gadgets. The emerging socio-economic implication of desktop manufacturing is that the transformative effect 3D printers in the long term will not be evolutionary, but revolutionary.

Chris Anderson, now an evangelist for the ‘Maker’ movement, epitomised the A-list technology journalist.  A former editor of the prestigious scientific journals Nature and Science, Anderson wrote for The Economist and became the Editor in Chief of the geeky but influential Wired magazine at age thirty-nine. He followed this with two New York Times bestsellers, The Long Tail and Free: the Future of a Radical Price and was named one of TIME magazine’s Top 100 thinkers. Anderson was at the top of his game and his career as a writer and editor seemed assured.

Then, in 2012 Anderson abruptly quit Wired and founded 3DRobotics, a rapidly growing start-up manufacturer of UAV technology and drone quadrocopter kits. The reason for the dramatic switch of career is featured in his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution central to which is an idea that “atoms are the new bits”.

Here’s the history of two decades of innovation in two sentences: “The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world.” This book is about the next ten years.

Anderson offers a cogent argument, one on which he has staked his own economic future, that the world is at the cusp of a historical moment where the imminent mass commercialisation of 3D printing will intersect with an open source maker movement culture; that this combination will be bigger, of greater economic importance and more transformative to global society than was the Web. A revolution in localised and home production with the potential to alter the race to the bottom logic of globalisation by allowing manufacturing entrepreneurs everywhere to be smart, small, nimble, radically decentralised and global by sharing bits and selling atoms.

Pointing to the technological evolution in the recent past, Anderson sketches a similar linear path for 3D printing beyond the current limitations of additive manufacturing techniques: “…But that’s because we’re at the dot-matrix equivalent of 3-D printers. Remember them, from the 1980s? They were noisy, monochrome, and crude—tiny pins hitting a black ink ribbon, little more than an automated electric typewriter. But today, just a generation later, we have cheap and silent inkjets that print in full color with resolution almost indistinguishable from professional printing”.

“Now fast-forward the clock a decade or two from today’s early 3-D printers. They will be fast, silent, and able to print a wide range of materials, from plastics to wood pulp and even food. They will have multiple color cartridges, just like your inkjet, and be able to print in as many color combinations. They will be able to print images on the surface of an object even finer than the best toy factories today. They may even be able to print electronic circuits right into the object itself. Just add batteries.”

If anything, Anderson has managed to understate the velocity with which the technology is advancing and the creative uses to which users are putting their machines. Since the publication of Makers, a succession of news stories have revealed everything from Formlabs’ slickly designed Form 1 machine to users printing functional (if fragile) assault rifles, car bodies and biomedical surgical replacements for missing pieces of the human skull. One gets the sense that the genie is out of the bottle.

Anderson is not merely making a technologically oriented argument , but a profoundly cultural one. In his view, the existence of the Maker movement, operating on the collaborative, “open-source” ethos is an iterative, accelerative driver of economic change that complements the technology. Anderson writes: “…In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics, all of which are transformative:

1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (digital DIY).
2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities.
3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content”.

In other words, the Makers are akin to the Linux crowd and the hacktivists in the coming internet of things. A community of stigmergy, dedicated to creating, tweaking and sharing in order to improve making.

The reach and breadth of 3D printing may soon become more dramatic than even the “liberating force” Anderson has described. Two new books, not yet released but both due out in May, also discuss the potential of 3D technology. America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century by James Bennett and Michael Lotus, posits robust growth in localised manufacturing in the context of more resilient and politically decentralised communities. The second, Radical Abundance by nanotechnologist Eric Drexler, explains the “quiet rise of macromolecular nanotechnologies” and the “prospects for a deep transformation in the material basis of civilization”. This conjures the prospect of technology that will allow tremendous leaps of advancement. One can envision genomic medical printing, manufacturing food from the polypeptide level up and exotic home metallurgy, right on your desktop.

Modern man who first left the cottage for the factory in mid-eighteenth century Britain may bring the factory home in the twenty-first.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson (Crown Business, 272 pages, 2012)