In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson presents a future of inventor-entrepreneurs spearheading the return of manufacturing to the United States. Customizable goods made by desktop fabricators like 3D printers sold globally on the Internet allow artisan manufacturers to occupy a space between mass produced oversees goods and specialty handmade items. Though his historical comparisons are often less than inspiring, his knowledge of the present’s maker culture and manufacturing economy make his book worth the read.
Reading as someone who has spent many years in a graduate history program, my face contorted with skepticism at many of his attempts to connect the industrial revolution to the maker movement. There are connections, but I don’t think Anderson is the person to make them. I think framing his book as discussing “The New Industrial Revolution” put too much pressure to add historical examples. The power of the book is in the present and the future. His best historical analogies are comparing 3D printers to the first desktop ink printers of the 1980s – both initially used by companies and for at-home entertainment (hardcover p.58). His less convincing historical examples often use a “this was then, this is now, look how now is better” framework. His analysis that looks at the present and imagines the future is far stronger and much more convincing. While I could detail my historical gripes fully, like most academic exercises, it’d be needlessly nit-picky. The bulk of the book is quite good. I’d just recommend picking it up at chapter 4.
The core of his argument, in fact, is rather convincing: the web made commerce global, 3D printing will make production ubiquitous. Together, they’ll remake the production of consumer goods. And he’s quite reasonable about it. He’s a supporter, but he does not preach a gospel. He recognizes that at certain economies of scale, there won’t be much change. Producing a million things in China or another low wage country will still be cheaper than 3D printing them in your garage. Instead, the power of 3D printing is in manufacturing items that cost the same, regardless of alterations made to the design. It’s just as efficient to print 1,000 custom products as 1,000 of the same item on a 3D printer. This makes sense for certain production scenarios, as he says, “markets of ten thousand” (196). Economies of scale still matter, but it’s not just big and small. There will be production runs of every size in between.
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 (87).
He’s terrific when breaking down and projecting into the future the best practices of current businesses. Anderson argues that expertise will be/are more important that geography and technology will/can trump labor costs. Companies that adapt to recruiting and retaining the best contributors, regardless of where they live, do get an advantage. Particularly interesting is his favoring communities over companies. His model of a business emerging from an open source community as a common economic path of the future didn’t fully win me over, but I can see it becoming much more prevalent and desirable. Similarly, the automation of production emphasizes design and lessens the influence of labor costs. He’s persuasive when suggesting that proximity to supply networks is more important to the overall cost than employee wages.
Anderson has a wealth of experience and insight into the maker movement and small to medium scale manufacturing. And he’s great at explaining it. My favorite examples is his appendix on how to become a digital maker, suggesting hardware and software options free and paid. Anderson’s ability to convey his expertise turning DIY into manufacturing makes Makers a worthwhile read for beginners and established makers alike.
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