Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson. Random House Business Books. ISBN 1-847-94065-0
Historians of the future always have a substantial advantage over contemporary chroniclers, because the pivotal points of development and change only really become apparent in hindsight. That said, there isn’t much doubt that the past 20 or so years have seen a huge and fundamental shift in the way we live and the way we do things, brought about through computing, communications technology and the internet.
And high on the list of effects from this shift, says Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and a tech watcher of note, is the degree to which individuals are now able to make and to do things for themselves which previously would have required the resources of large-scale corporations and organisations. It is, he says in a book published this summer, a “new industrial revolution”.
That’s maybe a bit of an overworked cliché, but Anderson, who has written other best-selling books on adjacent subjects, is using the word “industrial” deliberately. His book isn’t about the internet and its wonders as such; rather, because the internet and other technologies revolutionise businesses such as communications and distribution and in particular manufacturing, what he’s pointing to here is as much an extension of the do-it-yourself phenomenon of home improvement as it is a technology development. In fact, you might argue that the biggest single impetus given to this is not so much the new technologies as the disappearance of an old activity: it's much more difficult to spend your time tinkering with your car these days, when it mostly consists of black boxes that you wouldn't dare open for fear of nullifying the warranty.
Anderson takes a different view, though. The crux of his argument is that increasingly if we want something we can make it ourselves. And that, he reckons, puts the concept of “industry” on to an entirely new footing. It moves the emphasis in manufacturing back from the supplier to the customer: if you can make something yourself to your own specification, you will put in features you want or leave out parts you don’t want. Try getting a mass manufacturer to do this, and you’ll be waiting at the back of a very long queue. Customisation and personalisation run counter to the economies of scale that have driven manufacturing for a century and more.
The technologies that enable this kind of development are computer-based and, in many cases, they are pretty easy to learn and even possible to install at home. Anderson is particularly sold on the idea of 3D printing, where a computer-based design is translated to a stereolithography file which then drives a printing machine, and layers of plastics or other substances are built up to create the product you want. 3D printing is already used for prototyping and design work; so far the cost means that the idea that every home might have one is still a bit fanciful, but it’s probably getting there. Anderson certainly thinks it will.
He’s also much taken with the rise and rise of electronic assembly kits and the ease of robotic programming through websites and self-help groups run by, among others, Microsoft.
The problem with this is, you might think, that it’s a pretty limited range of artefacts and devices that are simple enough for you to be able to create at home. Anderson cites the charming example of his small daughters thinking nothing of creating their own dolls’ house furniture: basic plastic parts of no particular value and not needing any form of testing or certification. Directly you get into products that have a function, as opposed to merely an existence, functions such as bearing loads, for example – or just into products and systems of greater complexity or that interact with other products – then the idea of manufacturing at home perhaps reaches some limits. The talented DIY-er, the kind of person who builds kit cars, for example, or designs their own wardrobe and its contents, might not be deterred. But the rest of us?
Anderson of course recognises this, but he believes those limits are starting to melt away. And in any case, he’s not just talking about the DIY market at home. What the changes are engendering is a new attitude in which “manufacturing” no longer represents the barrier at which you have to call in the experts, and that applies to individuals and small firms acting as product designers and developers too in their jobs and careers.
So you have product design systems that have been computerised for the past 15 or 30 years or so but that now seamlessly link into manufacturing systems. Even if you don’t make the product or the device yourself, you can see on your home or office computer that it can be made and how, and you can increasingly test that it will work by subjecting it to at least a basic range of automated test functions.
This technology shift, he feels, puts innovation into the hands of anyone who’s got a good idea, rather than restricting it to the giant corporations which have dominated manufacturing for the past century and more. It encourages small companies and individuals who’ve got a good idea to run with it, and it makes manufacturing a service that you buy in or do yourself.
With the “Maker” movement in the US and elsewhere, he claims that all of this is already happening. My problem is that it's not just the Makers that do this: I suspect Anderson's view of how manufacturing industry operates is a slightly out-of-date one. I know of lots of sometimes pretty large companies that make to order and I'm rather bothered by his apparent lack of knowledge of these. Industries such as the machine tool sector are pretty much entirely custom-driven, with everything bespoke. Mass production still exists, of course, but in many cases it's mass production of customisable devices: my iPhone is different from yours because of the apps I have on it, though the device may be identical.
That this is extending into new areas is probably undeniable. And that we can now do it from home or our cars or the top of Snowdon is also true. But on the historical and the engineering side he seems a bit thin on facts and long on vision: a combo that always makes me a bit nervous.
So is it a “new industrial revolution”? Maybe we’ll need to wait a few years before we know. But don't come crying to me if it isn't.
A shorter (and kinder) version of this review was first published in Environmental Engineering, October 2012