Democratizing Manufacturing

How to realize the promise of the Maker Movement

New technologies and tools like desktop 3D printers, computer aided engineering software, and shared makerspaces haven’t just enhanced creativity and efficiency.

They’ve sparked a quiet revolution.

The Maker Movement — comprising inventors, programmers, designers, and tinkerers around the country — has already impacted how new products are designed and built, how regions approach economic development (PDF), and even how schools approach STEM education.

It’s no exaggeration to call the upshot of this trend the “democratization of manufacturing.”

With the widespread availability of powerful design and production technologies, we’re seeing a reordering of some industries away from centralized and hierarchical institutions (think big firms and factories) toward open networks of independent creative people (think entrepreneurs and small teams operating in incubators and makerspaces). Following a decades-long trend of high-value production moving outside the United States, “democratized manufacturing” offers unique promise of restoring hands-on vocations, harnessing creative talent, and strengthening America’s competitive advantage in building quality products.

But the revolution is still a work in progress.

To really impact national competitiveness and economic opportunity, it’s crucial to think about how entrepreneurs and small firms scale up to higher-volume production. To take the leap from “maker to manufacturer,” an entrepreneur or small firm still has to consider how to gain the specialized knowledge required for larger scale production, how to access supply chains, and, ultimately, how to tap into a skilled manufacturing workforce.

On August 8th and 9th, 2016, MForesight: Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight brought together some the nation’s leading entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers focused on the expansion of the new Maker Economy. The workshop brought forth some big ideas.

Sridhar Kota introducing the Democratizing Manufacturing workshop in August.

Participants identified new potential solutions for:

Democratizing manufacturing knowledge: Participants suggested creating online resources to act as a “one-stop shop” for entrepreneurs — with information on capabilities and constraints of various manufacturing processes, materials, software tools, and suppliers. Building on the National Science Foundation’s successful I-Corps program, participants also suggested creating a new M-Corps program to educate hardware entrepreneurs about basics of design for manufacturability methods and engage manufacturing experts to provide hands-on training. The Department of Energy’s new Build4Scale initiative presents an excellent new model for this approach.
Creating pathways to manufacturing careers: Participants recommended establishing new field trip initiatives and mobile demonstration programs to expose middle school students to exciting opportunities in engineering and manufacturing — as well as integrating existing best practices like FIRST Robotics into mainstream K-12 curricula. Crucially, participants highlighted the importance of apprenticeships as onramps toward meaningful manufacturing careers.
Enabling process innovations: Participants recommended that America’s federal science and technology agencies invest in innovative process technologies in general and for low-volume manufacturing processes in particular, and promote the creation of new intelligent software design tools that can ease transitioning a functional design into a series of manufacturing process steps needed to realize at scale.
Empowering US firms to launch and grow: Participants suggested the creation of a comprehensive match-making site to link inventors and entrepreneurs with suppliers and customers — a kind of “founder dating site” that spans the whole value chain. They also recommended leveraging resources and expertise at local universities, community colleges, and some US-based firms to lower barriers to accessing key production technologies and tools.
Improving access to the supply chain: Participants proposed the creation of a new National Office of Supply Chain Connectivity (NOSCC) to establish a web-based platform for connecting startups with supply chains, optimize existing programs like the Manufacturing Extension Partnerships, align workforce development with business needs, and disseminate best practices in OEM purchasing.

The August workshop was just the start of a bigger conversation. You can download and read the draft report “Democratizing Manufacturing: Bridging the Gap Between Invention and Manufacturing” and send in your ideas and contributions to reportcomments@mforesight.org.

There’s no simple answer for enhancing America’s manufacturing competitiveness, but empowering the rise and maturation of the Maker Movement is tremendous opportunity.