September 7, 2012 10:39 pm

Made to measure

Will 3D printing and a new spirit of bottom-up innovation lead to a revolution in manufacturing?
A design for 3D printing©Wenn

A design by Los Angeles-based company Emergent for a semi-rigid ‘shark car’ to be built using a 3D printing technique

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson, Random House Business Books, RRP£20, 257 pages

 

For an activity that is so pervasive, manufacturing has been written about remarkably sparsely. In recent years, the number of general interest books on the topic has been woefully disproportionate to the diversity of products that the sector creates and the effect these have on people’s lives.

Now, Chris Anderson has turned his attention to this field. On the whole, it is a contribution to be welcomed. The editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, Anderson is best known as the author of The Long Tail . This 2006 book won acclaim for describing how cheap digital distribution makes it possible for publishers of content such as films and magazines – and producers of other “intangibles” including software – to sell items relatively economically even in tiny volumes.

More

IN Non-Fiction

In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Anderson extrapolates his “long tail” philosophy from the ethereal to the material. The same kind of technological breakthrough that has given us smart computer programs and high-speed data networks makes it possible for manufacturers to create products in small batches, and sell them globally at a profit. The world’s obsession with “mass production” may be coming to an end.

Anderson’s focus is 3D printing: techniques in which complex shapes can be built up layer by layer from granules of plastics or metal, allowing for the creation of parts and products on a “one-off” basis much more cheaply than previous production methods. 3D printing is facilitated by whizzy new production machines, made primarily by US companies, although with key contributions from Europe. But just as important is advanced software that enables people with minimal computing experience and sparse resources to design their own products – and then transfer the resulting digital data to the new 3D machines for manufacturing.

The book takes us inside what some call the “Maker movement” – a community of people, mainly in the US, who collaborate on designing and building new products. Many Makers use shared equipment and intellectual property, often based around open-source software. Even funding may be obtained on a “soft”, participative basis. Out go ideas about raising cash from bankers; in comes the concept of doing the same thing using the laid-back medium of the internet to find “friends” with money to spare.

Appropriately, Anderson’s story centres on California. It tells us why the US – in spite of widespread angst about the country’s direction – remains the global centre for entrepreneurship. Nowhere else would Anderson have been able to find the stream of innovators who populate his chapters. The businesses they have set up have a stream of slightly implausible names: Square, which makes credit card readers; Pebble, a producer of miniature wrist-worn electronic gadgets; and Local Motors, a maker of “community-designed” cars.

Anderson’s title is based on the new ideas having sufficient weight to bring about a big change in the way the world makes things. This “new” industrial revolution is, he thinks, the third in the series. The first, according to his thesis, encompassed the familiar changes ushered in by the steam engine and the spinning machine in Britain in the late 18th century; the second was built around the advances in science-based production, including the advent of electricity generation and cheap steel, over the 70 or so years from 1850.

It so happens that Makers is part of a cluster of recent books that invoke the concept of “revolution” to explain contemporary industrial change. Jeremy Rifkin started the trend a year ago with The Third Industrial Revolution. I have played a part through The New Industrial Revolution , published this summer – though my argument differs from Anderson’s in that the revolution I propose has its basis in a broader range of technologies.

3D printing and related fields of engineering have a good chance of stimulating a welter of new ideas and products, as well as enticing new people into the field of manufacturing. All this is good and plausible, and Anderson’s enthusiasm for the topic – and skill in telling the human stories behind this – is appealing.

On occasions, however, he gets a little carried away. Perhaps some of this is due to his dual role as both participant in and chronicler of the Maker movement. As well as being a writer, Anderson is a co-founder of 3D Robotics, a maker of “smart” planes – small models that fly around in a drone-like fashion under remote control or using their own intelligence. This involvement undoubtedly gives Anderson extra insights. On the other hand, it also means he sometimes lacks the necessary degree of distance required for a balanced critique. This explains why the book too often reads as if it has been written by a geek primarily for other geeks.

The book also glosses over the fact that the Maker movement has barely scratched the surface of world manufacturing. Sales last year of 3D printing machines were less than 1 per cent of the turnover of the industry making machine tools for conventional production, which is based around “subtractive” methods of chiselling out lumps of material from solid blocks.

The parts and products generated by the new ideas seem – as Anderson describes them – disappointingly modest in ambition. They are weighted towards things such as expanding towel racks, “closet organisers” and flexible power sockets. I looked in vain for descriptions of how the emerging technologies could alter how the world makes gas turbines, diesel engines or X-ray scanners. A 3D printing and design revolution may well be in the offing. I am still to be convinced, however, that the “March of the Makers” has cranked much beyond first gear.

Peter Marsh is the FT’s manufacturing editor and author of ‘The New Industrial Revolution’ (Yale)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.