Last week I attended a talk with Chris Anderson (former Editor-in-Chief of WIRED, now CEO, 3D Robotics) and Carl Bass (CEO, Autodesk) hosted by Churchill Club at SRI in Menlo Park, CA. The talk was entitled “The Next Industrial Revolution” and attempted to explore how 3D printing and accessible CAD software would disrupt manufacturing and supply chains.
“Manufacture” Will Be A Button In Your Browser
The speakers opened by hailing the democratization of manufacturing, which, they proposed, would bring about a new industrial revolution. Chris in particular marveled at ease with which anyone, even children, can now design and produce physical objects: current consumer technologies allow individuals to exert their desired degree of control over the design and production of physical objects ranging from dollhouse furniture to drones. With readily available and affordable (in some cases, free) software, a maker with no formal training can create his own object designs, or choose from a vast and ever-growing selection of pre-created designs, tweaking them as desired. He can then either 3D-print the object in his own home, or send the design to a custom shop specializing in low-cost, small-run manufacturing.
The key paradigm shift, according to the speakers, was applying “personal” or “desktop” to the manufacturing arena, and they likened the current 3D printing movement to the introduction of personal computers and desktop publishing. Just as “publish” became a button in a word processor, allowing laymen to easily achieve what previously required specialized skills and years of training, so will “manufacture” become a button in a browser, a one-click making solution, in our immediate foreseeable future.
At this point, Carl initiated a discussion of what conditions were present right now, and hadn’t been before, that had enabled this paradigm shift. He noted that the first industrial revolution brought the ability to produce reasonably high-quality goods at a much lower cost – but only if the goods were produced in large quantities. This limitation no longer applies.
Garage Days Re-Revisited
In 2007, Jordi Muñoz was a bored college student from Tijuana, studying computers but dreaming of becoming a pilot. He married an American citizen and moved to California, and while he was awaiting his green card so he could return to school, he built an autonomous helicopter running on open source software and utilizing an old Wii controller and a gyroscope he bought on eBay.
Chris Anderson discovered Jordi and his helicopter through a YouTube video, and approached him about a business idea. Jordi has now put his degree on indefinite hold, moved to California, and become co-founder and President of 3D Robotics. His company sells everything necessary for makers to create and operate their own drones for fun and profit, for a few hundred dollars per aircraft. 3D Robotics closed a $5M funding round in November, and expects to end the year with revenues over $4M.
Sound familiar? We’ve seen this story before, many times in fact, with software start-ups and then Internet start-ups, only this time it’s got a new twist: it’s happening with atoms instead of with bits. The secret sauce of Silicon Valley, according to Chris Anderson, isn’t silicon: it’s giving access, control, tools, power to ordinary people, and seeing what they do with it. They get excited about it, they celebrate it, they connect with each other and develop communities around it. Most importantly, they do different things with it than academics and engineers do: “geeks” created TCP/IP, but everyday people from all walks of life are the ones who created what we know as the web.
You Say You Want A Revolution?
Certainly, something is happening here. But is it a revolution? If so, we’d expect new markets to emerge, new categories and organizational archetypes, and dramatic spiritual and cultural shifts in our society.
The first industrial revolution saw rapid advancements across diverse areas, from the cotton gin and spinning jenny, to internal combustion and steam engines, to the telegraph and radio. These innovations fed upon one another in a complex interwoven chain of events with wide-reaching impact, bringing about profound technological, economic, cultural, and social changes, and affecting nearly all aspects of life.
One result of the first industrial revolution was an exponential growth in both population and average income. Not only did people have more money, but the cost of goods was decreasing as interchangeable parts and assembly lines enabled relatively high-quality goods to be produced at scale.
The “masses” became able to afford luxuries previously available only to the elite. Communication and transportation over distances because possible with the invention of the telephone, telegraph, locomotive, automobile, and airplane. Over time, the industrial revolution brought dramatically increased wealth to nations, longer life expectancies, and a vastly improved standard of living to industrialized societies.
However, these advancements did not come without cost. As society moved from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy, workers flocked to factory cities where they were crammed into disease-ridden housing, and labored long hours under unpleasant and often dangerous conditions. Since they were cheaper to employ, children often made up significant portions of the factory workforce.
While individual complaints about poor working conditions were ineffectual and typically led to firing, the close living quarters led to workers banning together to help each other out. Mutual Benefit Societies collected monthly fees used to assist members in cases of illness and unemployment. Trade Unions were formed to bargain for improved working conditions, but initially were declared illegal. Chartists made attempts through legislative appeals, which were unsuccessful.
Workers were not the only segment of the population upset by industrialization. As skilled craftsmen found themselves replaced by machines and unable to support their families, some violently attacked factories and destroyed machinery. The activities of these Luddites, as they were called, were countered by government armies and militia; rioters were often punished with death.
It took many years before unions were legalized and reforms such as a maximum working day, a minimum working age, safety requirements, etc., were implemented and the infrastructure of cities caught up with the basic sanitation needs of their populations. However, today people living in most industrial societies enjoy significantly improved working and living conditions, far better than those available to the majority of the population prior to the industrial revolution.
Less apparent costs, however, have not been addressed; indeed one might argue they have worsened. As skilled craftsmen were replaced by unskilled labor, and workers moved from the farm to the assembly line, many warned of the spiritual costs of industrialization. The machination of production imparted by the industrial factories was criticized as quashing creativity, depriving people of their means of expression and pride of creation.
The leaders of the Arts & Crafts movement in particular found fault with the basic concepts supporting the new systems. Of interchangeable parts, John Ruskin asserted, “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression!” Of division of labor he found even stronger words:
“It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided; but the men– Divided into mere segments of men– broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail…”
Taking no pleasure nor pride in his work, man looked to wealth as the only means of pleasure, and a consumption-based society was born. When individuals in society defined their value by what they could purchase, rather than what they could create, and further were confronted with the vast divide of wealth between themselves and the elite class, many rejected the tenets of capitalism entirely, and socialist and communist ideologies rose in popularity.
Those Who Control The Means Of Production
Karl Marx vilified the factory-owning capitalists as exploitative and unnecessary, and characterized their interests as innately at odds with those of the working class. He predicted that in time, workers would become more aware of the unfairness of their situation, and that as the interests of the classes inevitably diverged, revolution would follow. Control of the means of production would be transferred from the privileged elite to a central planning body.
With the availability of CAD and 3D printing tools to anyone with a few thousand dollars and an idea, Carl Anderson stated that we have enabled design and production “of the 9 billion, for the 9 billion.” As the cost of 3D printers continues to fall, and both design skills and designs themselves become more abundant, control of the means of production is moving away from the “exploitative” big businesses that are the enemies of Marxists and the Occupy movement alike. And, that control is heading directly to the hands of the public, without the necessity of the central planning body that most critics of communism find so objectionable.
Asset-Heavy or Asset-Light?
Our current consumer society is an outgrowth of the industrial revolution. In the arguably-already-here future, where we are empowered to make anything we want ourselves, almost just by thinking about it, do we become Dancers at the End of Time, with no attachment to possessions, or the subjects of a new version of Hoarders on steroids?
Mary Meeker of KPCB recently gave a presentation entitled 2012 Internet Trends Year-End Update, in which she devoted several slides to the concept of the “asset-light” generation. She defines an “asset-heavy” lifestyle as one that consumes large amounts of space, time, and/or money. Someone living an asset-light lifestyle, by contrast, is unencumbered by physical possessions, outsources non-essential tasks, and requires less capital because she pays only for access rather than ownership. They are also typically younger. In her presentation, Mary suggests we all adopt the philosophy of the 25-and-under set, able to go an impressively long way with the clothes on their back, assets in the cloud, and a charged mobile device.
As goods become easier and easier for an individual to acquire, societal trends away from physical possessions are reinforced. The class of 2012 has no need for books or CD’s or DVD’s or often even cars. When they get married and start families, they may similarly have no reason to keep a garage full of Christmas decorations or a cabinet full of China. Extrapolating further, one can imagine a house furnished entirely with custom-designed tables, chairs, etc. that are recycled, redesigned, and re-produced in-home every season. Permanent “things” could become nostalgic relics at best.
I should note here that Chris and Carl did not speculate that the likely outgrowth of their “revolution” would be an end to capitalism, consumerism, and ownership as we know it. Rather, the prevailing opinion of the evening was that the effects of globalization would be reversed, and manufacturing would return to the United States. As labor costs become less significant as the traditional assembly line formula erodes, other costs such as shipping become increasingly material, and companies with shorter and more agile supply chains will be the ones that thrive, creating new opportunities and jobs locally.
I have a slightly different perspective. A resurgence of pre-industrial values is evidenced not only by the shift toward an “asset-light” lifestyle, but also by a renewed interest in individually-crafted goods at the expense of those mass-produced by global conglomerates. We’ve all been exposed to anti-corporate implorations (“Buy Local!”, “Buy American!”, “Support Small Business!”, “No Walmart!”), the growing popularity of hand-crafted goods sold on websites like Etsy or at craft/makers fairs around the country, and products from bread to chocolate to soap advertised as “artisanal.”
What we’re seeing now is in fact an industrial devolution, which will reverse the negative spiritual impacts of the industrial revolution. It is human nature to be creative and productive, not jealous and consumptive. We instinctively want to express ourselves through our own creations that we happily share, not through fearful or competitive consumption powered by jobs we grudgingly tolerate.
A 3D Printer Under Every Christmas Tree
The meme of the night, which even this anti-consumptionist caught, and particularly poignant this time of year, was that a 3D printer was the ultimate gift. Not only because of its ability to produce a near-infinite variety and volume of new gifts, but because of its ability to bring a family together in the act of creation, to remind us all of the joy of learning and inventing and expressing ourselves. Maybe, our 3D printer recipients will launch new companies, as Chris and Jordi have, and will produce jobs and revive our flailing and fragile economy. Maybe, they will in fact help set us free from the constraints of that economy altogether.