This weekend, in New York, tinkerers and hackers assembled to trade tips and show off their latest tricks at the World Maker Faire. This is only the latest in a series of events that are showcasing radical changes in the world of manufacturing.
Hacker spaces are nothing new. Since the beginning of the computer era, there have been spaces around the country where software and hardware hackers have been getting together to experiment with new technologies. Over the last few years, those spaces have increasingly counted computer-controlled CNC machines and 3D printers.
And along with an increase in the availability of those machines, the concept of monthly-membership hackerspace has slowly taken a foothold in many cities, allowing for anyone with an idea for a new product to create a prototype.
Once the prototype has been created, going from prototype to product becomes a question of figuring out how to finance the next step.
With the rise of Kickstarter as a platform, the way products are built and delivered has radically changed. Today, an inventor with an idea and a basic prototype can put together a set of marketing materials and sell a product long before the details of how to create the product at scale have been solved.
Take, for example, a couple of recent fundraising successes on Kickstarter: Last May, Pebble sold over 60,000 copies of a watch that existed only as a concept. Then, in August, Ouya sold a new videogame console to another 60,000 people. Neither product has been delivered. In fact, neither product is ready for production yet. But through the magic of becoming a backer, the new process for product creation can now be launched by anyone with a simple idea and a prototype.
This new approach to selling hardware is changing the established rules of manufacturing. In the past, companies did research in whether a market might work, created a new product, then put it in shops and crossed their fingers. If everything went right, the products would succeed and the money spent on R&D and the initial production run would be recovered. If things went wrong, the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars spent on that initial offering would be written off.
But in the new world of backer-supported development, anyone with an idea and a prototype can test out demand for a product before even producing the first complete production-ready model. By putting together a set of marketing material in a kickstarter campaign, new product makers can pre-sell products months before they are available.
In today’s new manufacturing world, products no longer need to exist in order to be sold and all the details of making something go from prototype to product can be worked out after commitments have been made on selling a product.
The distributed corporation
But once a product has been pre-sold, it still needs to get built and the skills to take a product from prototype to production-ready are often spread across multiple disciplines.
Companies have two choices in terms of developing the rights set of capabilities to produce products at scale: they can either hire full-timers as employees or they can figure out a way to contract the work out.
Between contract manufacturers and companies like odesk that allow you to find consultants either on an hourly or per-project basis. This means that capabilities like finding the right type of plastic to get certain color of material or figuring out ways to integrate cheaper components to maximize profits without decreasing quality is only a few computer clicks away.
Corporations have been outsourcing jobs for many decades but these capabilities are now available to individuals a very low cost, making it possible for an individual to launch a new hardware-based company at a fraction of what was possible in the past.
A new age of manufacturing
Recently, Marc Andreessen, a pioneer of the internet who has had an amazing ability at figuring out what the next big trends are, declared that “software will eat the world.” And when you look at the different industries that have been displaced by the rise of software-based solutions, it is increasingly clear that software has already eaten a large part of the service industry.
But what about hardware? Can software have an impact on how physical goods are been created a distributed? If you think about how the supply chain is being disrupted by the trends I just highlighted above, you may seen the beginning of a new post-mass production world, where hardware is manufactured by smaller productions lines and in smaller batches.
And a lot of hardware is now first generated as computer models that are fed into CNC machines and 3D printers. So the line between the virtual and the physical is getting increasingly thin and the way in which physical production lines work can also be increasingly automated.
Think, for example, of the recent achievement by NASA when it managed to get a completely software-driven robot to perform the impossible tasks of navigating from space into a safe landing zone on Mars without any human intervention. For 20 minutes, the Mars lander performed a set of pre-programmed actions in an acrobatic ballet that made it possible to land a vehicle roughly the size of a small car without a single issue.
If software can accomplish such an amazing feat, it is only one small leap of faith away to assume that we could get to the point where just-in-time production of a single object on a CNC machine would be based on software runs and the ability to effectively create single-object on a product line in a cost efficient manner.
In these trends, we could see the seed for the rebirth of a light manufacturing industry, with productions lines being located closer to distribution and consumption center.
3D printing, a trend that has yet to make its way into the mainstream, sits very strongly at the center of the maker’s movement. And it is the last key to building a society where goods are created in small batches, with no need to do large wasteful run. I’d venture that within the next 5-10 years, we will see neighborhood stores pop-up where you will be able to order a good online and pick it up or have it delivered a few minutes later.
Today, 3D printers are mostly building tools in plastic composites but some innovators are making it possible to build things in other materials. Innovators like Shapeways are building have been making it possible to print things in metal, ceramics and more and they are doing it only a few miles away from where the Maker’s Faire is being held. Meanwhile, at Maker’s Faire itself, Brooklyn-based Makerbot will be showcasing its new 3D printer.
So this week, the future of manufacturing is on showcase. If you’re in New York city, you should make your way to the Maker Faire and see that future. And if you’re not, you should get ready for the revolution to come to you. It may be sitting on the edge today but it’s getting closer.
And soon, it will be on your street corner.