A New Revolution? - The World of the Maker - The Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

PThe Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

Part I. The World of the Maker

Chapter 3. A New Revolution?

The first Industrial Revolution that straddled the 18th and 19th century was brought about by the introduction of machines into the production cycle; in particular the flying shuttle, which mechanized weaving, and steam power, which replaced human and animal muscle with a tireless engine.

This revolution changed everything. Living standards and education rose for millions of people. Global empires not only became possible but also, for the first time, practical. The earth’s atmosphere saw its highest carbon dioxide levels in 800,000 years. Language changed, as words like “job” and “work” acquired their current-day meanings. Even the way we viewed time changed: before the Industrial Revolution the average person usually needed to know the time to an accuracy no finer than morning, afternoon, or evening. (Clerics needed to know the time a bit more accurately, to correctly perform the Liturgy of the Hours, the eight times a day a good Christian must pray; for that reason the best timepiece in a village was usually the clock on the church steeple.) But after work began being regulated by machines, people needed to know the exact hour--sometimes the minute--they had to arrive at work, and the church clock was replaced by the factory whistle.

The Second Industrial Revolution dates back to the end of the 19th century, when electricity, oil, and chemicals led to the introduction of the assembly line in factories, and lasted well into the last third of the 20th century. Less well understood is the Third Industrial Revolution, which we’re in right now. It most likely began around mid-20th century with the development of the computer, continued through the development of electronics, nuclear power, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, and information technology, and it may very well be culminating with the development of desktop manufacturing machines.

The Introduction of Computers

When the Germans began using the electro-mechanical Enigma machine to encrypt their secret messages during World War II, the Allies needed a high speed computation machine to decipher those messages. At first they used high-function mechanical adding machines operated by “computers”, which were people, usually women, who punched the buttons. Unfortunately, this solution had some weaknesses: the “computers”, while proficient, were still performing calculations by hand, and, like all humans, needed time to eat, drink, and have a rest. Since the Allies were intercepting thousands of Enigma messages each day, this was not an easy strategy to pursue. So, the next step was the construction of the electro-mechanical calculator which helped cryptographers to decipher the Enigma messages in less time. Towards the end of the war, the British developed the first all-electronic computer to decipher messages encrypted on a different German machine, the Lorenz SZ 40/42.

However, the first electronic computers had defects, too: they were large enough to fill entire rooms, they were extremely expensive, and very, very delicate, being made primarily of old fashioned glass vacuum tubes. The Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) for ENIAC, one of the first electronic computers, was measured in hours in its early days. When it crashed, workers would walk inside the computer (which was room- sized, remember), and hunt for which of the machine’s 17,468 vacuum tubes had burned out.

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Figure 3-1. ENIAC, one of the very first computers (US Army photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since these early times, computers have progressed in an impressive way: the calculation power has doubled almost every eighteen months, so that today, any kind of smartphone is far more powerful than one of the first data processors.

The Power of Information

Great innovations often come from military projects, and the Internet is no exception. It started as a project called ARPANET, funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, one of the agencies under the US Department of Defense) in the 1960s as a way to link the computers in four universities: Stanford Research Institute, University of California Santa Barbara, University of Utah, and University of California Los Angeles.

From that moment on, more and more computers have been connected with one another into networks: first locally, then at regional and national levels, and finally globally. This global network we call the internet, the Net of the nets which, thanks to its numerous services, completely changed the management of information, and--with the development of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s--the way people and companies interact with each other.

It is easy to understand how the access to information remarkably enhances the power of all players involved. The consumer has a wider range of choices, the producer can deal with more markets and suppliers, it is far easier to create new contacts, to collect information regarding the quality of products and services through the feedback provided by other users, and so on. The computer and the Net can intervene at any point of the supply chain, improving it at all levels.

From Bits to Atoms

Today, thanks to the 3D printer, it is possible to create a three-dimensional object just by downloading a ready-to-use file from sites such as Thingiverse or YouMagine and printing it with a specialized device, just like we do with any paper document through a traditional printer. The concept is nothing new: the 3D printer was born long time ago, but until recently, the machines and materials were too expensive for a single person to own. Within the past few years, however, the cost of such devices has dropped so much that now it is possible to buy a desktop 3D printer practically at the same price as a laser printer.

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Figure 3-2. A personal 3D printer working

In recent years, 3D printing and the maker phenomenon have captured the world’s attention. They’ve had a strong impact on people’s imagination: what would happen to the current economic system, some pundits wonder, if each of us could build a perfectly functioning object for any need. What would become of the system of industrial production and economies of scale if everyone could make the things they need. Some have even wondered what this means for the capitalistic system as a whole.

It is true that these changes in the production processes as a whole will certainly influence the market and the global economy, but such an impact doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. Certainly, targeted micro- production may help reduce the uncontrolled consumerism we have always been exposed to through the media, because it would enable us to start repairing things again just like our grandparents used to, instead of throwing them away. Distributed small scale making will also lead to creating objects just where they are needed (for example, spare parts), instead of transporting goods all over the world.

Personal manufacturing must not necessarily be regarded as a threat to the economy and to industrial production, because it is often a component of them. The fact that it is possible to build something by yourself does not mean that everyone wants to do it.

On the other hand, many people are more likely to buy a ready-made object, available on the market, and then customize it according to their own needs, both in terms of functions and/or in terms of look. A quick look at models on Thingiverse or YouMagine turns up a lot of accessories for existing products.

The options for customization are endless--from turning a computer into a steampunk piece of art to engraving patterns on closet doors--yet these options do not hinder the mass-market production cycle at all. On the contrary, personal manufacturing can pave the way to a series of aftermarket services, thus allowing the makers, organized independently or in a network of new, specialised, digital technological craftspeople, to offer a customization service to those who can’t--or have no interest to--make the desired modifications personally.

The Rebirth of the Economy

The world is currently going through a serious period of crisis, especially here in Italy where, in 2013, youth unemployment exceeded 40%. In the face of this lack of jobs, a lot of people have started new companies, typically linked to web applications. Thanks to the Internet, the economic barrier to online entry has practically disappeared (even if the same can’t be said about the Italian red tape and taxation system). Personal manufacturing may be a very important tool to help these young people--and not only them. Today, anyone may start their adventure as a maker and micro-entrepreneur from their home or garage, and the Internet can help them be global from the very beginning.

As it often happens, a maker may create an object for themselves or another person and then realize that some other people might also want that object, perhaps with a few simple customizations. In such cases, personal manufacture is perfect because the set-up costs of the machines are marginal, so it is possible to carry out all those tiny modifications at a reasonable price. Customization of everything, from Ferraris to colored T-shirts bearing the image of a favorite singer, is a big business. What you’re paying for is not just the cost of the modifications, but a special price for the opportunity to be different.

As soon as makers reach the point where a great many people are interested in their things, personal manufacturing ceases to be sustainable and it becomes necessary to use industrial factories with mass production to exploit far more convenient economies of scale. A mold for injection molding can easily cost thousands of euro, but at that scale the manufacture of a single item will not cost a few euros as it might with desktop manufacturing tools, but it will cost a few cents. This will enable the maker, collaborating with a contract manufacturer, to develop and grow without problems and without enormous start-up investments.

Therefore, a maker following a sustainable business model can turn an object, conceived as a niche product, into a mass-market product. Moreover, if a few of their products or services are successful, the maker can become an accomplished entrepreneur and create a solid company, thus bringing home-made competencies--with their shorter turnaround times and lower costs allowed by digital technologies--to more people’s attention. Consequently, such a system can generate new jobs, help the local economy to restart from the bottom, and maybe even cause a chain reaction in which more and more new companies are created and are able to generate, in turn, new jobs themselves.