One of the more significant trends of recent years is the impact of technology on homemade manufacturing. A diffuse entrepreneurial community, sometimes referred to as the Maker Movement, has been using open source design to drive a telling resurgence in American manufacturing. Encompassing all kinds of activity from traditional crafts to high-tech electronics, linked by the adoption of digital tools, not just for design, but increasingly for manufacture through 3-D printing, technology has transformed DIY enthusiasts operating on their own at home into real communities.
Clearly all trends benefit from a little publicity. It hasn’t harmed the cause of the Maker Movement that one of the arch apologists of this new phenomenon is Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of “Wired” and author of “The Long Tail” and “Free”. Anderson has gone further than most to explaining the sheer scope of the digital revolution that displaced or changed traditional manufacturing industries. Yet his third book, subtitled “The New Industrial Revolution”, offered a persuasive counter to the argument that the internet has been little more than a new way of talking and shopping. He said, “today the Maker Movement is where the personal computer revolution was in 1985 – a garage phenomenon bringing a bottom-up challenge to the ruling order of the time.”
Among the examples of more serious homemade manufacturing Anderson referenced Local Motors, the Arizona-based company that is contesting the crown for maker of the first open-source cars. Made to designs obtained through crowdsourcing, its vehicles are the very opposite of traditional car companies, using off-the-shelf components to reduce costs. The company only builds a car once the purchaser makes a down payment and reserves a building date. Anderson said, “the beauty of the Web is that it democratised the tools both of invention and of production”. Thanks to what he called “the Web’s ankle-high barriers to entry”, the “path from ‘inventor’ to ‘entrepreneur’ is so foreshortened it hardly exists anymore.”
Clearly the Maker Movement has a global cause, not just an American one, so the acid test of its potency will be the extent to which it takes root elsewhere, which is why it is encouraging to see signs that it might.
One new company that is helping to bring the culture of the Maker Movement to the UK is the British firm OpenDesk, which aims to build a global online marketplace for digitally fabricated products, initially focused on furniture and furnishings. The company intends to transform the choice available to consumers buying furniture and provide a viable alternative to mass-produced products that dominate many of today’s markets. According to Tim Carrigan, one of OpenDesk’s founders, the company intends to give consumers access to hundreds of high quality designs by talented designers from around the world, spanning more or less any product category, with options to customize each item with different materials, finishes and functionality.
To deliver this, OpenDesk leverages a new generation of computer controlled manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing and laser cutting, which are transforming the economics of manufacturing by reducing labour costs to a smaller percentage of the overall cost. Most of the products are manufactured locally – reducing the impact of transportation costs on what consumers pay – created by a network of SME ‘makers’ who are increasingly comfortable with new digital fabrication technologies.
The key to OpenDesk’s business model is having a global network of these local makers. With nearly 200 registered makers and more joining each week the company is now firmly on the investment radar and has a live funding round. It’s also managed to build an impressive social footprint in a relatively short time, with 50,000 web visitors each month.
Carrigan thinks that the commercial motivation for companies like OpenDesk is to address increasing consumer demand for originality in the provision of a widening variety of good and services. He see parallels with businesses like Airbnb, who are transforming what were previously perceived as fairly functional services (renting rooms and apartments) into much richer customer experiences.
‘Part of the appeal for the consumer is not just that we offer great choice, customisation or great value, but the human element of being able to transact directly with the designer and maker’ say Carrigan. ‘It’s the same appeal as buying via Esty or renting through Airbnb, because I know exactly where my money is going to.
As Chris Anderson pointed out some time ago, this type of innovation is part of a much bigger puzzle. Perhaps as a response to the times we live in, people throughout the developed world are looking for what is commonly termed “authenticity”. Hence, the rise of farmers’ markets, the explosion in artisan foodstuffs, the decision by many well-educated young people to set up shop making leather goods, knives and other crafts. Inevitably, big business is attempting to fight back by putting more emphasis on the “real” and “genuine” in their goods. But for the moment the force appears to be with the DIYers.