Sunday Times, 16 September 2012
Makers: The New Industrail Revolution
by Chris Anderson
Chris Anderson is back, again pushing us, blinking and bewildered, into the future. First there was The Long Tail, the book that told us how the internet could sell us anything. Then there was Free, which said it would all be, well, free. Now there is Makers, which tells us, in essence, that we must all become factories.
Anderson, the editor-in-chief of technology magazine Wired, has a gift for seizing on something you may have been aware of in the background of your browsing, then thrusting it into the foreground and telling you it is your future, like it or not. He is Silicon Valley’s prime prophet, the station master of Geek Central.
The technology you may have been dimly aware of is 3D printing. Your home printer produces two-dimensional sheets, but now there are printers that build three-dimensional objects. Out of a bath of fluid or powder, any solid object, previously specified on your computer, can be made to appear. Anderson’s case is that this is the equivalent of James Hargreaves’s spinning jenny, the Lancashire gadget that, in 1764, launched the industrial revolution. The jenny made something — yarn — faster and cheaper than ever before, and the 3D printer does the same, except it can make anything. This is a hot topic. As I was reading this book, a news item appeared on my computer about a “Wiki Weapon Project” that would provide a blueprint that would let people “print” handguns at home. Almost daily such schemes — whimsical or lethal — are being reported.
Up to now, computer technology has created fortunes and giant companies out of thin air, or, rather, out of the fizzing electrons of the virtual world. Insofar as physical objects — such as, say, newspapers or CDs — are involved, they are only there to be converted from atoms into bits. But the new game is to convert bits into atoms.
a “Wiki Weapon Project” that would provide a blueprint that would let people “print” handguns at home.
So far so clear — well, not completely. Anderson slows things up with a boiler-plate history of Manchester and manages to call the river Irwell the Mersey. He can be a touch sloppy. His writing is also pancake-flat and embarrassing when it tries not to be — for example, he calls the jenny “an inflection point in the arc of history”, a phrase that only PowerPoint jockeys could possibly admire.
Anderson’s problem is that 3D printing is in its infancy. Objects made out of more than one material, for example, are hard to print. As a result, it is far from clear that, out of all the technologies currently around, this is the one that will spark a revolution. He tells plenty of fun stories about the hacker culture surrounding these machines and about his own efforts to get on board. He has precisely specified dolls’-house furniture made for his children, and has launched a build-your-own drone company. There is even an appendix on how to become a maker. But this is hobbyist stuff.
In fact, it becomes clear as the book progresses, the real story is not about technology but about the structure of manufacturing. As 3D printers improve, it is conceivable that members of the beleaguered middle classes — engineers, architects, designers — will abandon their companies and will design and prototype their products at home. If these are customised and niche market products, they might also manufacture and sell them. But, if they are for the mass market, they will have to contract out the manufacturing process to what will, in effect, be an old-tech factory.
There is a further problem that Anderson elucidates on the basis of his own entrepreneurial experience. There are no economies of scale with these machines. Once you have bought your printer, making 1,000 objects costs 1,000 times as much as making one. This puts such manufacturing at a severe disadvantage.
Anderson is probably a better authority than most at futurology. But, as Woody Allen said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the future. On the other hand, this could be just the technology the demoralised middle classes need, the high-tech route back to the cottage industry and the end of the miseries of office life.