Chris Anderson has an important message from the future: Did you know you can outsource manufacturing?
In the cover story of the latest issue of WIRED, Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson makes a claim that at first, soaked as we are in the “maker” DIY culture of the internet and science fiction, doesn’t seem completely preposterous: “micro-factories” are the “future of American manufacturing”—as the title proclaims, “Atoms Are the New Bits.”
The problem is that they so aren’t. Atoms are real, finite things. Until 3D printers can do more than squirt out mono-material resin sculptures—inevitable, perhaps, but not within the next decade—even the at-home revolution that Anderson puts up as an example of a new way of manufacturing consumer goods isn’t actually new at all. Until that glorious day, Anderson suggests American enthusiast makers outsource the dirty work to China.
“Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine,” claims Anderson.
We used to call “micro-factories” “small businesses”, but that was before we knew they were a revolution.
It’s painful for me to point this out, because many of the people involved in this so-called “revolution” are my friends. They’re smart people doing admirable, clever things. But at best they’re changing the way hobbyist and boutique manufacturing works. The future of mainstream industry remains about the same as it’s been for the last thirty years.
Let us fisk. Anderson’s opening example is Local Motors, a shop which is building a $50k “crowdsourced” car with a Creative Commons-licensed design:
“The Rally Fighter’s body was designed by Local Motors’ community of volunteers and puts the lie to the notion that you can’t create anything good by committee (so long as the community is well managed, well led, and well equipped with tools like 3-D design software and photorealistic rendering technology). The result is a car that puts Detroit to shame.”
I think the Rally Fighter is nifty, but get real: It’s not all that different that designs from major manufacturers. Moreover, you’ll find in the very next paragraph that the design sprung first from the mind of a single person, a design student named Sangho Kim.
So great. There’s a car company building a kit car that uses a BMW crate engine. You can download their plans—but not their parts—for free. They plan on selling a couple thousand.
There are dozens of kit car manufacturers in the United States. Add in the custom car companies like Devon or coach builders like Sportsmobile and you’re up into the hundreds.
It’s very neat that they designed their car with input from others online. But until I can go down to the local Local Motors dealer and test drive one for myself, you can hardly call it a revolution. Open source is a nice way for information to disseminate, to make a project better; its addition does not guarantee a revolutionary—or even successful—business model.