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Makers by Chris Anderson


RATING: 8/10…ADDED AUGUST 30, 2014

A great overview of the maker movement.

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We are all Makers. We are born Makers (just watch a child’s fascination with drawing, blocks, Lego, or crafts), and many of us retain that love in our hobbies and passions. It’s not just about workshops, garages, and man caves. If you love to cook, you’re a kitchen Maker and your stove is your workbench (homemade food is best, right?). If you love to plant, you’re a garden Maker. Knitting and sewing, scrap-booking, beading, and cross-stitching—all Making.

The great opportunity in the new Maker Movement is the ability to be both small and global. Both artisanal and innovative. Both high-tech and low-cost. Starting small but getting big. And, most of all, creating the sort of products that the world wants but doesn’t know it yet, because those products don’t fit neatly into the mass economics of the old model.

Wondrous as the Web is, it doesn’t compare to the real world. Not in economic size (online commerce is less than 10 percent of all sales), and not in its place in our lives.

In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics, all of which, I’d argue, are transformative: 1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (“digital DIY”). 2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities. 3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content.

today, about a quarter of the U.S. economy consists of the manufacturing of physical goods. When you include their distribution and sale in retail outlets, you’re talking about closer to three-quarters of the economy. A service economy is all well and good, but eliminate manufacturing and you’re a nation of bankers, burger flippers, and tour guides. Software and information industries get all the press, but they employ just a small percentage of the population.

Much of the emerging “Internet of Things” movement is built on Arduino-based devices connected to the Web, from coffeemakers that tweet their status to pet feeders you can control from your phone, wherever you are.

at its core, industrial revolution refers to a set of technologies that dramatically amplify the productivity of people, changing everything from longevity and quality of life to where people live and how many there are of them.

Imagine a course where kids would learn to use free 3-D CAD tools such as Sketchup or Autodesk 123D.

The Internet also lengthened the tails of physical product markets for consumers. But it did so by revolutionizing distribution, not production.

In the Web case, the “stuff” was and is mostly creativity and expression in digital form: words, pictures, videos, and the like. It doesn’t compete with commercial goods for money, but does compete for time.

In a world dominated by one-size-fits-all commodity goods, the way to stand out is to create products that serve individual needs, not general ones. Custom-made bikes fit better. Right now this is mostly the privilege of the rich, as such products require handcrafting. But what if they could be produced using digital manufacturing where there is no cost to complexity and no penalty for short production runs?

Goods made by passionate consumers-turned-entrepreneurs tend to radiate a quality that displays craftsmanship rather than mass-manufactured efficiency.

Physical products are increasingly just digital information put in physical form by robotic devices such as CNC mills and pick-and-place machines making printed circuit boards. That information is a design, translated into instructions to automated production equipment. In a sense, hardware is mostly software these days, with products becoming little more than intellectual property embodied in commodity materials, whether it’s the code that drives the off-the-shelf chips in gadgets or the 3-D design files that drive manufacturing.

Think of a digital product design not as a picture of what it should be, but instead as a mathematical equation of how to make it. That is not a metaphor—it’s actually the way CAD programs work. When you draw a 3-D object on the screen, what the computer really does is write a series of geometrical equations that can instruct machines to reproduce the object at any size in any medium, be it pixels on a monitor or plastic in a printer. Increasingly, those equations don’t just describe the shape of a thing, but also its physical properties—what’s flexible and what’s stiff, what conducts electricity and what insulates heat, what’s smooth and what’s rough.

“Algorithms, software, hardware and digital manufacturing tools are the new standards of product design.… Unlike a mechanical imprint, which physically stamps the same form onto objects, an algorithmic imprint lets outward and visible forms change and morph from one object to the next.” Sound familiar? This echoes the “mass customization” promise of the first wave of Web retail, a decade ago. If a product is built on demand, why not have it designed on demand, too, or at least offer the consumer the ability to customize it according to taste?

the examples where consumers are designing their own products online are rarely mass. Threadless (T-shirts), Lulu (self-published books), CafePress (coffee mugs and other trinkets), and others like them are thriving businesses, but they are platforms for creativity more than great examples of mass customization. They simply give consumers access to small-batch manufacturing on standard platforms: shirts, mugs, and bound paper.

It is the reverse of mass production, which favors repetition and standardization. Instead, 3-D printing favors individualization and customization. The big win of the digital manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between the two without having to fall back on expensive handcrafting: both mass and custom are now viable automated manufacturing methods.

Digital fabrication inverts the economics of traditional manufacturing. In mass production, most of the costs are in up-front tooling, and the more complicated the product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: the things that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free: 1. Variety is free: It costs no more to make every product different than to make them all the same. 2. Complexity is free: A minutely detailed product, with many fiddly little components, can be 3-D printed as cheaply as a plain block of plastic. The computer doesn’t care how many calculations it has to do. 3. Flexibility is free: Changing a product after production has started just means changing the instruction code. The machines stay the same.

Something in my wiring forbids the notion of fun for its own sake; instead, everything must be building to a purpose. What this normally means is an unfortunate tendency to “industrialize my hobbies,” which usually has the sad effect of making them not fun anymore.

we’re a hybrid: the simple business model and cash-flow advantages of traditional manufacturing, with the marketing and reach advantages of a Web company. We’re still a small business, but the difference between our kind of small business and the dry cleaners and corner shops that make up the majority of micro-enterprise in the country is that we’re Web-centric and global.

What entrepreneurs quickly learn is that they need to price their product at least 2.3 times its cost to allow for at least one 50 percent margin for them and another 50 percent margin for their retailers (1.5 × 1.5 = 2.25). That first 50 percent margin for the entrepreneur is really mostly covering the hidden costs of doing business at a scale that they hadn’t thought of when they first started, from the employees that they didn’t think they’d have to hire to the insurance they didn’t think they’d need to take out and the customer support and returns they never expected. And the 50 percent margin for the third-party retailers is just the way the retail market works. (Most companies actually base their model on a 60 percent margin, which would lead to a 2.6x multiplier, but I’m applying a bit of a discount to capture that initial Maker altruism and growth accelerant.)

Customers are both keen and savvy: they are prepared to spend a bit more because they know that they are getting exactly what they want. It’s an attractive business model.

let’s be honest: our communities exist because our products are hard to use. They are mostly support communities, where members help each other navigate confusing and uncharted territory. There’s also a bit of a development community, for the one percent of users who also want to help evolve the products or take them in new directions.

But what if someone wants to rip us off anyway? Well, it depends on what you mean by “rip us off.” If someone else decides to use our files, make no significant modifications or improvements, and just manufacture them and compete with us, they’ll have to do so much more cheaply than we can to get traction in the marketplace. If they can do so, at the same or better quality, then that’s great: the consumer wins and we can stop making that product and focus on those that add more value (we don’t want to be in the commodity manufacturing business). But the reality is that this is unlikely. Our products are already very cheap, and the robots we use for manufacturing are the same ones they use in China, at the same price. There is little labor arbitrage opportunity here.