SAN FRANCISCO, United States — Since the birth of the personal computer and the Web, people have used relatively simple and accessible new technologies to create, connect and collaborate in ways that were previously unimaginable. For one thing, simple blogging tools and social media platforms have fundamentally democratised mass media, ending the monopoly once enjoyed by large publishers and broadcasters.
Now, easy-to-use digital fabrication tools and online assembly services are set to drive a similar revolution in physical manufacturing, radically lowering barriers to entry by making the tools of factory production available to everyone. Indeed, manufacturing may soon become just another cloud computing service (like Dropbox or Google Docs) available at the click of a mouse, with no penalty for short production runs. With such services, users pay for each item they make, while computer-controlled equipment makes the per item cost of producing one of something the same as the per item cost of producing 10,000. And while, at high volumes, these services are not as cheap as traditional mass production techniques, they are set to become better and cheaper over time.
These advances, along with the rise of social financing sites like Kickstarter, which free would-be entrepreneurs from dependency on traditional sources of capital, and the growth of online marketplaces like Etsy, which easily connect sellers and buyers around the world, are enabling a whole new class of small-scale creators to make and market industrial-grade products, a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘the Maker movement.’
Is everyone now a manufacturer? Is an explosion of desktop manufacturing start-ups just over the horizon? And what are the implications for the fashion business?
To find out more, BoF spoke with author and entrepreneur Chris Anderson — who recently announced his decision to step down, after eleven years, as editor-in-chief of Wired magazine to become the full-time CEO of 3D Robotics, his personal drones start-up, which just announced a round of venture capital funding led by California-based True Ventures — about the rise of desktop manufacturing, the Maker movement and his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.
BoF: What is the Maker movement? What are the forces driving this movement? And why is this the new industrial revolution?
Basically, the Maker movement is what happens when the Web meets the real world. It’s the combination of the Web’s innovation model with a new generation of computer-controlled desktop manufacturing tools that have a democratising impact, much like the PC and the Internet did a generation ago.
I would argue that there have been two major industrial revolutions, with the third one emerging now. The first industrial evolution was about mechanisation; replacing muscle power with machine power and amplifying human productivity by letting machines do the work. The second industrial revolution was arguably the computer revolution. But it wasn’t the invention of computers. It was their democratisation; putting them in the hands of everybody with the PC and the Internet that unleashed a huge amount of talent, energy and creativity which was transformative. The third industrial revolution is just a combination of the first two: it’s the Web revolution meets manufacturing.
The reason that this is even more transformative than the Web is simply that the world of physical stuff is bigger than the world of digital stuff. The manufacturing economy is much bigger than the information economy. And if those same social forces that transformed the world through the Web can be applied to physical goods, you would see tremendous social impact.
BoF: You have this wonderful phrase, ‘atoms are the new bits.’ Can you unpack this concept?
Fundamentally, we saw in the world of digital information, we were able to liberate the bits that make up communication, content, etc. from the hands of industry and academia and put them in the hands of everybody. As a result, regular folks could use them to tell their own stories, create their own content, and create new business, new markets, new cultures.
But that was only on the screen, because we only had the power to shift bits around. Manufacturing on the other hand was a hard thing for most people to do. You didn’t have the tools to prototype, you didn’t have the factory, you didn’t have the funding. The barriers to entry were much higher.
What you’re seeing now is that physical stuff is starting to look more like virtual stuff. The same way that Mark Zuckerberg could invent Facebook in his dormroom, the next Mark Zuckerberg can now invent a physical product, prototype it, and press another couple of buttons to put it into production right from his or her dormroom or home.
Because design now begins as a digital file, it begins to take on the dynamics of the Web. It starts to be sharable. You can build collaborative communities around it. You can send it to local machines, like a printer, to be made in units of one, or send it to [cloud manufacturing services] to be made in the thousands. And you have places like Kickstarter that can generate the funding. So now it starts to look like the Web. It starts to act like the Web. It starts to feel as easy to engage in as the Web. Atoms begin to act more like bits.
BoF: With the rise of social media and simple blogging tools, everyone is now a publisher. Is everyone now a manufacturer?
I think the analogy is close. Everyone can be a publisher. Whether you consider updating your Facebook status to be publishing is almost a matter of semantics. Some people choose to publish to groups of friends. Some people choose to publish to the world. When you upload a video to YouTube you are broadcasting and have the ability to reach billions of people. It blurs the line between the professionals and the amateurs. And we’re seeing the same thing with manufacturing. If you design something on the screen and you 3D print it, are you manufacturing? No. You are prototyping. However, that same file, if you click on another series of links, can be put into production and turned into a business relatively easily. The same way that most people who created a blog didn’t intend to make a business out of it, but some did, most people who create products in this new world of digital design won’t be [doing this professionally] but some will be creating a new class of company.
BoF: Does the 1-9-90 rule that applies, at least directionally, to online content (1 percent create, 9 percent participate, 90 percent are passive) also apply here?
A tiny minority of people can create an explosion of products. And that’s because it’s a tiny minority of a very big number. That’s the beauty of the whole thing. If you put the tools of production in the hands of millions of people and only one percent of them turn that into entrepreneurship, that’s still thousands of new entrepreneurs, new companies and new product categories that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.
BoF: How might digital fabrication apply to the fashion industry? Are we going to be able to print out a sweater or a shirt?
Printing it out is probably not the right process, as the material is so important. But you will certainly be able to send designs to cloud [manufacturing] services that can create them with industrial scale computer-controlled machines. The technology is there now. And it might soon become a market worth exploring.
BoF: In your book, you describe the growth of ‘industrial artisans’ doing things like ‘desktop embroidery’ and ‘desktop weaving.’ Will we soon see a new ‘long tail’ of desktop fashion start-ups?
Yeah. I think you’ve already seen glimpses of it. At some level, it began with the first t-shirt services, like Threadless, that simplified the t-shirt production process, so that you didn’t have to worry about the atoms, you could just focus your creativity on the bits — the design that goes on the t-shirt. Then, it moved on to, for example, Etsy, which is full of fashion entrepreneurs with niche categories.
Of course, to some extent, fashion has always been a ‘long tail’ market. Once upon a time, we all had sewing machines. In fashion, desktop manufacturing tools are not new! Obviously, they are now better and the files are now digital. But remember the cottage industries that grew around weaving and spinning. To think that one of the strongest 21st century cottage industries is going to be fashion is completely in line with the arc of history.
BoF: With these desktop fashion start-ups ever rival established brands? Or will they sit alongside them?
More alongside. One of the classic misunderstandings of my first book, The Long Tail, was that it was the end of the blockbuster. When, in fact, it was the end of the monopoly of the blockbuster. YouTube didn’t kill Hollywood. Instead, YouTube enabled a different kind of video content and a different market. In some sense, it competes with Hollywood, but it also feeds Hollywood. It’s a very synergistic way to grow the overall pie by introducing a new kind of creator. I would expect the same to happen with mass production, which is to say, the 21st century cottage industries are the long tail [of manufacturing]. They’re very good at the niche; at the market for 10,000 of something, the custom and the unique. Some of them may go mass. Most will not.
BoF: How can established fashion brands harness the power of these technologies?
To the extent that fashion trends are increasingly coming from the grassroots, from the street, from the bottom up, you’ll have more of that — more interesting fashion being made at the grassroots level, which smart companies would be wise to pay attention to. YouTube now does feed Hollywood and television; big media companies increasingly get their talent from the blogosphere. In fashion, I suspect we’ll start to see the rise of new talents that didn’t necessarily go to design school, but who can now show their work much more effectively, because they have access to more powerful tools.
BoF: With the rise of digital fabrication, global supply chains will start to become ‘scale free,’ able to serve small companies just as well as large ones. What does this mean for the business models of large companies that are built on economies of scale?
Economies of scale still exist. Being able to be Zara, with high volume, just-in-time manufacturing that gets your product to the physical marketplace quickly is a huge advantage. And I don’t think this is going away anytime soon. Fashion is one of the industries that continues to have a strong case for the physical. Online commerce has been huge, but trying on clothes is a big deal and that’s something that the Internet is not going to solve anytime soon.
BoF: If you were to sit down with the CEO of one the world’s biggest fashion brands, what actions would you advise them to take?
Most people will give you the example of mass customisation — giving [consumers] the tools to customise your stuff — and that’s certainly a good answer; Nike and others have done that. But the answer I would give is this: take a little product and conduct an experiment. Put it out there in open form and allow people to modify it and remix it. For example, Shapeways took a CAD file of an iPhone case, with all the exact specifications, and put it out there for free and said, ‘You can now modify the design.’ And that simplified the process of product creation, by making it all about the cool, differentiating part rather than the hard work of getting the dimensions right.
It would be interesting to ask: what sort of fashion apparel or accessory could be open-sourced with the intention that people remix it, modify it and enhance it — and maybe come up with something worth putting into mass production?
Now, I don’t think that’s right for everybody. Exclusivity is a hallmark of fashion. That’s fine. But some brands may say it’s great engagement with the customer to let them play designer, or give them the ability to work with a top designer.
BoF: Where do you see the Maker movement in 5 years?
We know that the tools are only going to get better and cheaper to use. I really do think 3D printers will be commonly found in American homes in five years. And the moment you bring a 3D printer into a home, especially a home with children, the light bulb goes off. You are suddenly training a generation to believe that anything they can imagine, they can make. And the fact that the cloud [manufacturing services] side of things is developing equally quickly — they realise that they can make almost any volume and quality they want.
That’s liberating and exciting and it’s going to be fascinating to see what kind of industries emerge. It seems almost unlimited what kind of products can come out of the Maker market. I think what’s going to happen is we get the first billion dollar Maker company. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but the same way you needed a Gates and you needed a Jobs and you needed a Zuckerberg, somebody like that is going to emerge from this movement.
BoF: Finally, last Friday, after 11 years, you announced that you are stepping down as editor of Wired to focus full-time on your personal drone start-up. Did the rise of the Maker movement play a role in your decision?
One hundred percent. The book came out of the company rather than the other way around. There was no reason that I should be in the aerospace industry, other than the fact that the tools became so easy that I could be. I just started tinkering and suddenly found myself competing with some of the biggest aerospace companies in the world, because the Maker movement made it easy enough for me to do so. I did industrialise my tinkering. And today, we’re close to 45 employees and we’re going to be announcing a venture capital round.
Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion