With a new year dawns the prospect of a new era of manufacturing, where companies mass-personalise their products and individuals revive the garage-DIY mania of the 1980s.
Will 2013 see the maker movement reach critical mass?
You would have to be living under a stone to have missed the rise of the “maker movement”, especially in the last 12-months.
In 2012 the Raspberry Pi arrived in the UK, a basic computer motherboard designed to teach children how to build a PC. Chris Anderson, ex editor-in-chief of WIRED, published a book called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, a eulogy to the growing movement of people making their own stuff.
Universities globally are opening Fab Labs – fabrication or “fabulous” laboratories – where students and paying punters can design, test and make. Articles about the maker movement popped up everywhere last year and a group of young people in the US made a semi-automatic gun with a 3D printer.
Two industrial phenomena, the maker movement and the mass personalisation of products will receive a lot more scrutiny in 2013.
The maker movement is not new but it is getting big.
Kamau Gachigi at the University of Nairobi’s engineering faculty, which has a ‘fab lab’, told the BBC this week that a network of boutique fab labs throughout Africa could revolutionise the ability of people to make and buy the type of consumer goods that Western countries take for granted.
Mr Gachigh alludes to a range of products but specifically he talks about pharmaceuticals. A mud and straw factory churning out approved drugs in every town could revolutionise medicine administration in Africa, consigning the threats posed by Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener to fiction permanently.
Sir Christopher Grayling FRSA, writing for the Royal Society of Arts a year ago, referenced a new-found devotion by MPs to the merits of craft manufacture that has penetrated the educational establishment. “Perhaps […] the three Rs of ‘reading, writing, ’rithmetic’ should morph into ‘reading, wroughting, ’rithmetic’, or literacy, making things and numeracy, and policy buffs talk about the ‘parity of esteem’ between intellectual and practical pursuits.”
It seems today that politicians and parents really want children to learn how to make something, rather than just design it, sell it, manage its logistics and legal status.
Chris Anderson’s book gives a litany of examples of do-it-yourself nirvana, where individuals and start-ups design and make working things – often with real commercial value – from a clutch of mini-machines set up on their desktops.
Anderson, whose grandfather Fred Hauser invented a successful sprinkler system, has converted an entire floor of his house into a fab lab. His list of equipment underlines his obsession; a MakerBot desktop 3D printer, mini-laser cutter, a ShopBot CNC router, two soldering stations, Arduino electronics and more.
The make-it revolution is here. But is there any real, big scale commercial value? Can a useful product – such as a pair of trainers, or a smart phone case – made in your shed rival the quality and functionality of one bought from an international brand?
Ask 10 people who understand the maker proposition and you will get little consensus. It could be just for enthusiastic hobbyists, or it might change the world, a genuine business risk to the dominant global players like big pharma firms.
No-one is claiming that Hewlett Packard or Apple will be worried by the maker movement in its next cycle. But 2012 seemed to be the watershed year. Makers stuck their flag in the ground and said ‘We’ve arrived and we ain’t budging’.
3D printing is the key enabler of the maker movement. When these machines first launched they cost several hundred thousand pounds but as with much technology, the price is now falling. RepRap printers can be picked up for $350.
Consider these important events for 3D printing in 2012:
- Inventors made and flew remote controlled 3D-printed planes
- Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made a personal £10m investment into Makerbot, the US desktop 3D printer.
- Experts backed the viability of 3D printing medicines in ‘satellite pharmacies’ across Africa
- 3D printed food became edible
- A group of young people called ‘Wiki-Weapons’ made a print-and-shoot gun
The other big revolution in manufacturing to monitor in 2013 is mass personlisation.
In The New Industrial Revolution, published in 2012, the Financial Times’ manufacturing editor Peter Marsh explains how manufacturing has passed through a five-phase cycle from personalised goods, made to order, via mass production to the point today of “mass personalisation”.
Technology and lots of customer data make this possible. Marsh cites a French contact lens manufacturer which has perfected the high volume production of customised prescription lenses in very short lead times, by part-making common prescriptions as ‘blanks’, then tailoring each to the customer.
Other companies closer to home are proving a success at mass personalisation.
Howard Hunt Group is a large printing business in Dartford, Essex. From straight litho printing it diversified into direct marketing for big brands like First Choice, Vodafone and British Gas, and then a data management business, Celerity, that cleans databases.
Today it is a £60m business that delivers millions of variants of printed designs, like mail-shots, with customised information for each addressee. This extends to modifying the letter with your favourite holiday destination and colours – even scents.
“I get it custom, you a customer,” boasts US rapper Kanye West in his collaborative song with Jay Z, ‘Otis.’ The attitude is indicative of the drive among people in urban communities to stand out and that is creating new demands.
In the US, hat making company new era declares that ‘‘You can’t buy originality. You have to create it.” People increasingly want to play a part in the making of their own clothing and for $59.99 you can create your own baseball cap from scratch.
Design options are endless. You can choose whether your new era cap is made from wool or polyester, add logos depending on what baseball team you support and choose the colour of individual panels, stitching and the snapback.
Clothing manufacturers are already adapting to cash in on what may be a short or long lasting trend. In the meantime, we have customers taking design out of the hands of the manufacturers as more people get their products customised.
So will either the maker movement or mass personalistion define 2013?
A key question is: are any fab labs and makerspaces making any real money? If this question avoids the ethos of the movement, then mainstream manufacturers can rest easy.
Clearly, small manufacturing labs have a problem with volume manufacturing. If a fab lab hits on a great design and product, and received several hundred thousand orders, it would take far longer to make with this equipment than subcontracting the orders to a large plastic injection moulding and precision engineering company.
Also there is a question of safety.
When I told a maker evangelist “But you’ll never make aerospace-grade parts with this equipment, right?”, he raised his eyebrows in a smug ‘says who?’ way. Perhaps someone has or will build an engine in a maker mini-factory, but will it ever get passed to drive on the Queen’s highways, or be used in an Airbus A320?
Neither movement will make the ‘paradigm shift’ to fundamentally change the business models of global companies in 2013. We still need breakfast cereal, mobile phones and diggers that work and are delivered on time, and we don’t need a new fridge with our name engraved in our favourite colour.
But, judging by the rise of these movements in the last 3-4 years, culminating in the second six months of 2012, we should see a lot more evidence of both. Look out for a Fab Lab or TechShop near you.
Will Stirling and Tom Moore