Can Manufacturing be Democratized?

Anna Waldman-Brown
May 16, 2016 · 12 min read

By Anna Waldman-Brown

This piece is part of a series highlighting the work and stories of Makers across the U.S. in the run up to National Week of Making, June 17–23, 2016.

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The assembly plant of the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1944 via the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division and Wikipedia.

You may be reading this blog on a smartphone which was designed in California, mass-produced in China using German tooling and Japanese components made from Congolese minerals, and then programmed by developers in offices around the globe. Your phone fits snugly in your pocket, and yet has access to billions of times more information than the ancient Library of Alexandria, and thousands of times more processing power than the room-sized machines that helped us land on the moon back in 1969:

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By NASA — This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 278195.

The code for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission had to be physically written in notebooks and double-checked before anyone could feed it into the ancient computers:

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Lead software engineer Margaret Hamilton stands next to the code for the Apollo 11 mission. By NASA, Public Domain.

A century earlier, one of the first ancestors of the modern computer would have weighed five tons and measured eleven by seven feet:

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A photo of the Difference Engine — the first “computer” capable of complex programming, constructed by the London Science Museum. Photo by Wikipedia user geni.

Yet the same technological advances that led to your astonishingly pocket-sized supercomputer have led to unsustainable rates of resource consumption, the lack of middle-class jobs, and the outsourcing of everything.

English-speakers have particular trouble speaking critically about progress. The word “progress” comes from Latin: pro- (forward) + gradi (to march). Marching forward is only worthwhile when we’re moving toward some destination, and yet our culture imbues “progress” with an inherently positive meaning — even though we generally have very little idea where we’re headed. Perhaps this positivity dates back to the early days of the English language, when England’s status as a global superpower was intertwined with the nation’s technological supremacy. Many other languages have several terms for “progress” — from beneficial (new and better) to neutral (new but not necessarily an improvement). With only a single word for “progress,” we English-speakers often view technology as a driving force rather than a tool that we ourselves have created. Progress becomes as inevitable and unavoidable as gravity — and we forget that we’ve created the entire metaphorical solar system in which these laws apply.

While our wonderful technology-enabled lives would be impossible without the economies of scale provided by mass production, we’ve now chosen the path of mass-production and it may be difficult to alter our course. According to the Manufacturing Institute, manufacturing in the USA generates the greatest economic output of any sector — even though major firms like GE and Apple are moving towards providing services and importing goods from abroad instead of creating their own products locally. Manufacturing forces factories to innovate in order keep up-to-date on technological trends, both to create new products and to maintain a competitive edge over other companies. By outsourcing manufacturing, we may lose out on related innovations.

Enter the Maker Movement: a massive national effort to get people making things locally. Many Makers discuss a return to the good old pre-digital days of local manufacturing and artisanal production, while at the same time embracing state-of-the-art technology such as 3D printers, global networking, and sensors.

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Aerial panorama of Maker Faire Bay Area taken by Cris Benton via Makezine

Modern technologies may provide an historically unprecedented opportunity to support local production — especially when combined with the trends toward increased customization, smaller production runs, and reparability. There is a strong Maker notion of “repair culture,” which encourages industry to create more serviceable and hack-able products, perhaps with modular components like Arduinos or Little Bits that Makers can repurpose after the original product becomes obsolete. Unfortunately most electronics today aren’t designed for easy reparability, leading Makers to demand more user-hackable products.

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The Fixers Collective at Maker Faire via the wonderful repair-it-yourself collective iFixit.

iFixit estimates that 23% of scrapped electronic devices can be easily repaired to work again. These Global Fab Awards 2010 winners from Woelab in Togo, West Africa even built a fully-functional 3D printer out of discarded electronic waste! You may recognize the frame of a desktop computer…

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Image via WoeLab.

Our educational system democratized verbal literacy, and the Internet effectively democratized publishing. If the Maker Movement continues to grow, what happens to our current models of production?

To attempt to answer this question, we’ll need to broaden today’s discussions around hardware. When we talk about exciting startups on Kickstarter, we often forget to consider the importance and the challenges of actual manufacturing. Start-ups may feel forced to choose between either traditional methods of mass-production (such as modern electronics) or one-off, boutique artisanship (like jewelry sold in neighborhood craft fairs). While the actual details remain uncertain, the Maker Movement could theoretically enable a hybrid form of production that combines the scale and efficiency of mass-manufacture with the benefit to local economies provided by small craft businesses. Although companies such as Microsoft or GE might not distribute their actual manufacturing across dozens of tiny factories, such firms could still incorporate aspects of local production such as assembly, customizability, and/or repair. New startups, of course, have incredible flexibility in adopting new production models that support local communities.

The economic benefits of local production may depend on the size and complexity of your product. Welsh researchers Dr. Paul Nieuwenhuis and Dr. Peter Wells have argued for decades that local assembly and retail facilities are more affordable for vehicle manufacturers than shipping pre-assembled cars (i.e., giant empty metal boxes) worldwide while paying for retail locations. Several car companies agree with their assessments, but these companies have invested so much money and logistical effort into the current system that they’re reluctant to make any changes. Other large products like refrigerators and furniture may similarly be more amenable to local production.

Arizona-based Local Motors created automobile-building micro-factories across Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Knoxville — with an aim to “engage and empower global communities of designers, engineers, fabricators and automotive enthusiasts to solve local problems, locally, through distributed making.” They host an open library of vehicle designs from drones to sports cars to cargo bikes, and even created the world’s first 3D printed car with carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic and 40 hours of print time. Testing out the distributed possibilities of digital fabrication, Local Motors physically printed the car in Detroit in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory over in Tennessee.

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Local Motors Strati via Popular Mechanics.

Since modern factories enable rapid retooling, smaller-scale manufacturing facilities may actually have a competitive advantage: they can readily customize products for specific local needs, at a local scale. Anyone need 3D-printed insoles for your running shoes, available now in limited quantity from New Balance?

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3D Printed soles for running shoes from New Balance.

Hardware companies like Apple have succeeded in bringing the rapidly-changing notion of “fashion” from clothing to electronics — where every new generation of product is better than the one before, and products are thus designed to have a shorter life. This means that smaller manufacturers don’t have to make zillions of identical products, since fashions are liable to change and technological advances will make old products less desirable. So, it may become useful to have a flexible, smaller-scale factory.

Companies such as Uber and AirBnB developed platforms to enable the sharing of resources, rather than owning their own fleet of cars or hotels. Could manufacturing firms also embrace this sort of platform economy, distributing production across hundreds or thousands of networked micro-factories? We may need to change our policies to incentivize the creation of local factories, especially since manufacturing firms, as mentioned earlier, are much more accustomed to large-scale production.

Several San Francisco-based companies believe that distribution is indeed the future of manufacturing. Plethora is developing tools for an automated, intelligent micro-factory that will interface smoothly with design software — paving the way for a future of smaller-scale, local factories:

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Plethora founder Nick Pinkston promises to “make hardware as easy as software” by integrating design tools and fully-automated fabrication.

Modbot is a modular robotics platform that similarly integrates hardware and software — they envision “automated manufacturing and consumer robots within reach of everybody, assembled like Lego.”

Modbot pitch video via Highway1.

Fictiv is a match-making service that pairs professionals with locally-available, professional-grade tools to “leverage the power of distributed manufacturing for more efficient production.” Based in New York and Amsterdam, 3dHubs provides a similar match-making service for 3D printers — with over 29,000 3D printers listed worldwide, their service provides “one Billion people with access to 3D printing within 10 miles of their home.”

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3dHubs hosts printers across the country! Image via 3dHubs.

The FirstBuild Microfactory in Louisville, Kentucky — backed by GE Appliances — is a veritable Maker-factory for home appliances, targeting the “valley of death” that often attacks startups after they successfully produce a few dozen units of their product, but lack the skills and know-how to scale up.

“Through the use of advanced manufacturing techniques and rapid prototyping tools,” says FirstBuild, “products can be made on a very small scale up to the thousands. This enables products to quickly move from concept to creation to showroom floor.” GE Appliances can then rapidly iterate and manufacture any viable products, in partnership with the inventors.

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FirstBuild microfacatory via FirstBuild on Indiegogo.

Down in Gainesville, Florida, Make.Work is also creating a factory-incubator to assist small manufacturers in getting to scale — with the aim of creating new factories in the vicinity once successful startups prove themselves and their market:

Small runs are typically very expensive due to the up-front costs and large per-part costs, particularly for the vast majority of small companies who are trying to manufacture here in the US. These young companies would prefer to handle their own manufacturing in this area, but lack the requisite sales to justify the $2–3M investment it takes to set up a dedicated manufacturing line.

Make.Work provides the capacity for manufacturing ‘small runs’ in our 27,000 sq.ft facility with accessory buildings for shipping and inventory storage. Companies can lease space in our facility and share access to manufacturing facilities with other early stage companies… As they grow and outgrow the shared facility, Make.Work has the ability to provide them with custom designed and constructed proprietary facilities on the same site.

Co-founder of Make.Work Mark Davidson in the pre-renovated Make.Work building, soon to become the shared manufacturing area. Photo via Doug Finger.

The Internet enabled an explosion of user-generated content, allowing anyone to become their own media company — could a similar disruption happen in manufacturing, allowing anyone to design and/or create their own products? In many ways, this is the narrative behind 3D printing: an explosion of user-created 3D models hosted on platforms like MakerBot’s Thingiverse, which everyone can download, customize, and print locally for themselves. In practice… have you ever used a 3D printer? The technology is incredible and watching your product emerge may feel like advanced wizardry — but the current state of desktop-3D-printable objects is fairly limited to small plastic (and carbon-fiber-reinforced) things like jewelry, prototype components, molds for metal-casting, appliance replacement parts, and orthodontics. 3D printing with other materials has yet to become consumer-affordable, although several startups like the San Francisco-based 3D metal printers at Matterfab are working on the issue:

Just as early inventors of the Internet created a set of open and accessible protocols for all users to build upon, we may need a comprehensive, common “language” to foster this new manufacturing paradigm. (We could have wound up with a much less democratic Internet, if not for the early emphasis on openness and accessibility.) This is the idea behind Autodesk’s open Spark platform — to create reliable, accessible standards and platforms for this whole world of “additive manufacturing.” Spark provides a call to action for manufacturers everywhere: “together we can not just make 3D printing work, we can shape the future of making things.”

Many believe that the future is even smaller-scale — not just micro-factories but desktop-sized nanoscale-factories. Nonetheless, we’ll have to wait at least decades before we’ve got Star Trek-style Replicators in every household: magical boxes that can assemble everything from a couch to a full martini glass to a piping-hot synthetic cheeseburger, out of raw components.

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Star Trek fans are still waiting for 3D printers to perfect the fabrication of glass, martini, and olive. Image via Shisma on Wikipedia.

Today’s nanotechnology labs still require millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, as well as vacuum conditions and sterile cleanrooms. When Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow synthesized the first hamburger by culturing meat in a lab, it cost them $325,000.

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Modern Meadow’s synthesized hamburger via Matthew Flamm for Crain’s.

Despite the enormous potential, this distributed and democratized future of manufacturing is by no means inevitable. After all, the platform economy is replacing local taxi companies and hotel chains with distributed mega-companies — even while opening up new opportunities for individuals. Mass manufacturers could just as easily employ Maker tools in giant, agile factories or factory-clusters — which, depending on the product and relevant government policies, may be more profitable than local micro-factories. Instead of local customization, companies could provide tailored products through centralized 3D printer clusters, which can then be shipped worldwide to consumers. Perhaps this is even the best possible option for everyone — I don’t have enough data to draw conclusions.

We have two main reasons to encourage local manufacturing: to help the environment by minimizing waste and not depleting our finite resources, and to help people by creating better employment opportunities and enabling more control over the means of production. Unfortunately, these two goals may conflict. The optimized production lines and processes behind mass manufacturing are many times more energy-efficient than dozens of local shops designing and creating their own products. Even the carbon emissions that come from shipping products around the world might not make up for the waste created by inefficient local manufacturing.

Although repair culture is growing among Makers, many companies may instead decide to reduce waste internally by selling long-term leases to their products instead of outright ownership — so a company can then take its product back at the end of its lifetime and recycle any valuable components in house. This future of perpetually-company-owned products is vastly different from the Maker ideal of open and hackable technology — and yet it has gained considerable traction among industries concerned about both dwindling resources and their Intellectual Property rights. Phillips engineer (and distributed manufacturing startup founder) Grace Kane believes that managing this trade-off between environmental and social goals will be one of the biggest challenges facing the democratization of technology.

Whatever happens to manufacturing, it’s important to remember that we have a history of being clueless about the future of technology. Before the invention of the automobile, New Yorkers made frightening projections about how the increasing population would lead to untenable mountains of horse-poop throughout the streets. In the 1940s, long before cell phones or even direct-dialing on the land-line telephone, Bell Labs was freaking out about how many switchboard operators they would have to hire in order to bring the telephone into every American household. Back in the 1840s, Lady Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage couldn’t quite convince the English government that the programmable computer would have any use beyond mathematical calculations.

The question is, what kind of world do we want to create? We’ve been discussing how technology will shorten the workday since the early 1800s, and yet workers at the forefront of technology today regularly work over 50 hours a week under unhealthily stressful conditions. Across the USA, income inequality is increasing and social mobility hasn’t substantially changed — despite the fact that our culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship continues to be the envy of nearly all other countries. Even the government of Shenzhen, China invited Americans to help organize their first Maker Faire to promote local innovation!

One reason why many Americans are so excited about the Maker Movement — and perhaps why you’re reading this blog — is the elusive prospect of democratizing technology, to create a more equitable country filled with opportunity for everyone. Yet we’ll need to clarify the actual details. As we hopefully learned from the Cold War, control over the “means of production” quickly becomes a complex and political question, in which ideology can become just as important as the technological and economic conditions.

We live in interesting times, and the march of progress has always provided us with a range of possible paths. So we must be mindful of where we’re heading — and build towards a world in which, to misquote Abraham Lincoln, technology “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Anna Waldman-Brown is a Maker and international consultant on grassroots innovation. She’s currently researching the future of local manufacturing with the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy and MIT’s Technology Policy Program.

A Nation of Makers

The stories and experiences of Makers across the U.S.

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