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Manufacturing the Future

Noisebridge Arduinos For Total Newbies workshop, July-2011

In a recent article in The Economist, entitled More than just digital quilting, it was suggested that the maker movement may just herald a new industrial revolution, and noted how it is “both a response to and an outgrowth of digital culture, made possible by the convergence of several trends”.

The article cites trends in online services and software, and new tools and technology as enablers for this movement, and goes on to note how openness has led to the creation of ecosystems. This latter point is key and the role played by a culture of sharing, underpinned by liberal licensing, cannot be overemphasised; eschewing more traditional approaches such as seeking to secure exclusive rights via patents, in favour of openness and sharing, has facilitated growth.

The idea of giving something away—‘intellectual property’—may seem counter-intuitive to many, and the opportunities this affords may be non-obvious. However, open source software has demonstrated that it can support businesses from one person in size, up to playing a significant part in the strategy of a global giant such as IBM. With open source hardware there are similar opportunities for provision of digital services such as design, customisation and support. However, since physical products are involved there are also manufacturing opportunities.

One of the most encouraging attributes of open source hardware ecosystems, such as Arduino, is that they are able to support a high degree of customisation and specialism, whereby marginal use cases can be catered for and small businesses are able to carve out a niche. And since designs are made freely available to all, manufacture can be closer to the point of use and the distinction between producer and user is blurred. This suggests exciting possibilities in terms of stimulating local economies, and reconnecting people with how technology works and extending its useful life.

As we attempt to navigate a course through difficult economic times, could it be that we are on the cusp of a 21st Century Industrial Revolution? Or rather, a post-industrial revolution where, as we continue to witness with media production and delivery, many top-down infrastructures are challenged by networks that support peer production.

It is clearly the case that major industry will never be entirely displaced, but there may be a significant reconfiguration of the design and manufacturing landscape on the horizon. Leading to a future in which the individual and many grassroots communities of interest play a much larger part, and there are many more opportunities for wealth creation in local economies.

Image top: learning Arduino development at the Noisebridge hackerspace, by Mitch Altman.