If you look at the grand sweep of history, you notice something. As technology develops, it brings utility closer and closer to the individual. Take transport, for instance. In the past, if you wanted to get anywhere quickly, you had to take the train with a bunch of other people. Then, as the technology developed, average people started taking the bus to get from place to place. Then, by the 1960s, most people were earning enough money to buy their own car and could take a trip anywhere they wanted without having to share a cabin with other passengers. Now transport is being personalized even further, with options in high-tech cities like Singapore and San Francisco to fly across town in a flying car.
The same thing happened with computers. Computers started off life as massive mainframes that could only be operated if you had a Ph.D. Then they started showing up in cafes, schools, and universities. Then, in the 1990s, the personal computer became universal, and there was a PC in every home. Finally, in our present decade, computers have been miniaturized, and now they fit in our pockets.
Could the same be happening to manufacturing?
It’s an interesting question and one that many major news publications are currently investigating. The maker movement was little more than a movement to make stuff in schools a decade ago. Kids would go along to a workshop and design things, like a metronome or a battery box and then go home and show their parents. But with advancing technology, the maker movement is something that is going more mainstream. In fact, many have suggested that it might be the way we manufacture stuff in the future.
One visionary is Ray Kurzweil, a man that many of the people reading this blog will have heard about. His latest prediction is that technology is going to disrupt the fashion industry in a similar way to how it disrupted the music industry. When music went digital, millions of people started downloading it off the internet, and regular record stores started closing their doors. People didn’t need to make the trip downtown anymore to get the music that they wanted. It was all digitally available at their fingertips.
Kurzweil is predicting that the same will happen for clothing. Now people have to travel for miles into town to get the clothing that they want. But in the future, he says, they’ll just make it themselves, using technology in their homes. While this may sound far-fetched, people were equally dismissive of the idea that libraries would one day be forced out of business by e-books. They said that people would never agree to read books on handheld devices and that the technology was fanciful. And yet that is something that we now all take for granted.
Kurzweil expects that the maker movement will disrupt the fashion and clothing industry in a similar way to how digital technology disrupted the music industry. Many people worried that digital music would kill the music industry and reduce total revenue, leading to a music dark age. But this is the precise opposite of what happened. Because digital technologies made it so much easier to find and buy music, total revenues actually went up over time. Despite the industry’s reservations, they actually did rather well from the transition to digital. Kurzweil argues that the clothing industry will have a similar experience once the maker movement takes off. Once the technology is deployed to allow people to manufacture clothing in their own homes, a whole new digital marketplace will open up where people will buy and sell clothes designs.
It’s this advancing technology that has led the National Maker Faire to suggest that in the future we may not only be making our own clothes, but our own gadgets too. Just cars and computers have become more personalized, so too will the way we make and buy products. In the past, you needed a whole supply chain and manufacturing facility to bring a gadget to market. But with additive manufacturing, you don’t need any of that. Instead, the average person can turn themselves into a manufacturer overnight and start printing out their own designs.
In a strange way, it’s a return to life before the industrial revolution. Back then people worked in their own cottages making stuff at home that they could sell to market at the weekend. Now they can browse the machinery they need online at Reliant Finishing Systems, as well as other vendors, and do it themselves. People on the left and the right are keen on the maker movement. Those on the left love the fact that the maker movement emerged from public-private partnerships. They say that it is yet more evidence that when the government intrudes on people’s lives, economic progress happens faster. People on the right love it too. The maker movement means that there will be new jobs in the economy and that people will be able to escape the poverty they are currently trapped in.
The National Maker Faire in Washington isn’t the only maker event making an impact. Private companies are also opening up their facilities to startups and other individuals who need access to facilities. Big businesses with unused space on their campuses, like Dell and Google, are coming to the realization that they can increase their revenue by renting out used space, putting their capital to work. Makers benefit too since the rents usually work out a lot cheaper than building the facilities themselves.
There are also businesses looking to accelerate this new economic trend by reaching out to younger people and transforming them into agents of change. Examples include Wenatchee Washington and Fictive, both of whom are teaching people how to make precision parts. They’re taking young people and altering their curriculum. They want to see less time learning about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and more time learning how to machine billet aluminum and use 3D printers.
In conclusion, the maker movement is progressing exponentially. It won’t be long before it’s a very visible sector of the economy, like manufacturing is today.