When you walk through TechShop just outside of Detroit, you see all sorts of contraptions and manufacturing projects—from bipedal robot legs hanging off a wooden stand to super-stretch cargo bikes that can carry big loads. Wind your way past the laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC machines—past the wood shop and the metal-bending station—and you will find a hallway hung with a half-dozen blackboards from floor to ceiling.
Written across the top is the question: “What would you make if you could make anything?” Below, on each blackboard, repeated 120 times Bart-Simpson-style, is the line, “I would make:” Each one is followed by just as many different answers, including “Starship,” “Time Machine,” “Food Replicator,” and “Girlfriend.” (Hey, everyone has a dream.) The members of TechShop pay as little as $125 a month. For that they get access to a couple million dollars worth of prototyping and small-batch manufacturing tools, tutorials, and a community of like-minded makers. They aren’t producing any of the more far-fetched items listed above yet, but what they are capable of making there might surprise you.
When I visited a few weeks ago, I saw world-class musical instruments, those robot legs, tricked-out bikes, and gorgeous, laser-cut, Settlers of Catan game boards. Nothing earth-shattering, but TechShop is a place where people’s imaginations come to life as real, manufactured objects. And some even become real businesses. The TechShop in Menlo Park, California is where Jack Dorsey’s co-founder Jim McKelvey produced the first prototype of Square‘s credit-card swiper for smartphones. It was also where DODOcase started manufacturing its laser-cut bamboo iPad cases, now a multi-million dollar business.
TechShop, which has three locations in California and one each in Michigan and North Carolina, is merely the tip of the iceberg. A confluence of events is making it just as easy to launch a manufacturing startup today as it is to create an Internet or mobile one. From generating consumer demand and pre-selling your products on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, to designing and manufacturing your products at dramatically lower costs, to marketing through social channels—it is now possible for anyone to become a manufacturer. Everyone can operate their own factory.
For one thing, the cost of CNC (computer numerical control) machines, laser cutters, 3D printers, and other equipment used to manufacture prototypes and small batches has come down by orders of magnitude in the past couple decades. You can buy a desktop 3D printer like the latest Makerbot for $2,200. And what is gaining steam with engineers, designers, and hobbyists—the self-proclaimed “makers”—is quickly spilling out to business people and other parts of society.
A new community of middle class manufacturers is rising quickly. Wired editor Chris Anderson, in his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, argues that the next decade will be about applying the lessons of the Internet to the real world. As he writes in The Guardian:
The nascent Maker movement offers a path to reboot manufacturing—not by returning to the giant factories of old, with their armies of employees, but by creating a new kind of manufacturing economy, one shaped more like the web itself: bottom-up, broadly distributed, and highly entrepreneurial
At the panel I moderated at the Techonomy Detroit conference on the DIY Economy (see video below), Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann echoed this sentiment by suggesting that the future of manufacturing lies not with big companies like General Motors, but with “a rising class of entrepreneurs.” As she explained onstage:
“So we’re in this world where there’s all these ideas, and they’ve just been repressed and they’ve never seen the light of day, because the mechanisms to raise the money, to design the products, to distribute the products, to market the products were never there. But now they are…. People who were employees before are now going to become entrepreneurs, and we’re going to see this rising middle class of entrepreneurs.”
But will this new middle class of manufacturers ever replace the 12 million manufacturing jobs we have in the U.S. today? Will they even come from the same class of workers? Some of them will, but the maker revolution probably won’t make a dent in the overall employment numbers anytime soon. However, that should not be the measure of the maker movement’s success. Anything that contributes to the growth of manufacturing jobs at home is a net good for the economy.
“I believe that’s a huge opportunity for manufacturing labor in the United States,” says TechShop CEO Mark Hatch, who was also on the panel. It is not just that such bottoms-up manufacturing is a dynamic area in an otherwise moribund economic sector. It is changing the very nature of manufacturing.
Traditional manufacturing is all about economies of scale and punching out the same item a million times. It costs a lot of money to get a production line up and running, but there is no cheaper way to mass-produce consumer goods.
The maker movement comes at manufacturing from a different angle. It is about craft, and producing things in small batches for niche markets—things like bamboo iPad cases, remote-controlled underwater vehicles, and the Pebble watch. Customizing each product becomes an option because you are essentially making products one at a time.
All along the chain, from design to manufacturing to marketing, the Internet and evolving industrial technologies are transforming the way physical goods are made and sold. What may today look like activity on the periphery of the economy could very well become central to how we produce things tomorrow.
Not only is it now possible to cost-effectively manufacture custom items on-demand for smaller markets, but the Internet lets you test consumer demand before you spend a penny. Crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter are training consumers to commit to buy goods before they even exist. And companies like Quirky, which just raised $68 million from Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins, are including consumer input in the process of product design.
Who says manufacturing can’t be personal? This new class of manufacturers is creating emotional ties with consumers. Thanks to the Internet, consumers know who made their product, and the story behind it. Many times they buy the product because they themselves are part of that story. It wasn’t manufactured by a faceless company. It was made just for them. They helped bring the product to life.