Friday, 30 November 2012

Book Review: Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution
Chris Anderson
Random House Business
Hardback £20.00
ISBN-13: 978-1847940650

This is a book about big ideas. It is about the democratization of design in the digital age.

Just as the internet enabled the acquisition of knowledge and communication, now digital advances are transforming product design and manufacturing.  No longer do you have to be a professional product designer backed by industrial mega-bucks to come up with an idea and market it. Anybody can do it. Everybody can be a maker with access to the new making technology. Crafters – this means you (think Etsy, think digital paper cutters). As the author points out, the internet revolution was about computer bits intangibles . The making revolution is about atoms things. 

This is a business title. Don’t be put off. It is an easy, accessible – and fascinating ­– read, featuring success stories and anecdotes. In it, Chris Anderson describes both the technology and the business strategies and practices required to get an idea to market. Like many topical titles, this book is an outgrowth of a magazine article. The expansion to book length works fine – there’s plenty of material to cover, including a capsule history of manufacturing, and a review of available making technologies.

You’ve probably seen 3-D printers on the news. Geeks making plastic figurines (Yoda) that look like they came out of a cereal packet. Yes, this is a technology in its infancy – very Wallace and Gromit. (One of the main brands of 3-D printers is even called a (MakerBot ) Thing-O-Matic.) But things are moving fast. Already 3-D printers can handle a range of materials – plastics, stainless steel, sterling silver, glazed ceramics - at various price points. One day, the Star Trek replicator might become reality. 

Chris Anderson likens the stage at which 3-D printing tech is at now to the dot matrix printers of the late '80s. Things will get increasingly sophisticated – fast.  Remember desktop printing. That was a big idea in the '90s –  today everybody knows about fonts and designing newsletters. Now it  is desktop manufacturing’s turn. The prospect of making becoming second nature is empowering.

3-D printers enable the designer to quickly prototype an idea. If you have the digital skills, you can make it up yourself – maybe in one of the Fab Labs (fabrication laboratories) that are springing up worldwide. Fab labs are equipped with digital printers, laser cutters, and other digital manufacturing gear. They are public access – maybe there is one near you. If you don’t have the computer skills, but you do have an idea, you can take it to a fabrication bureau, which can make up an affordable sample, that can then be refined quickly. (Crafters may be familiar with the Spoonflower website, which will print up original textile design fabric metrage. Locally, there’s the Fabpad print bureau at the University of East London, which prints both textiles and paper.)

3-D printers can be used to fabricate human tissue – and organs – by adding stem cells onto an armature. That surely is an astonishing achievement.

The digital design revolution is not exclusively about 3-D printers, although they get the most publicity because of their wow-factor. If you own a digital paper cutter (like a Silhouette machine or a Cricut), then you have a C-N-C machine – a machine which removes material to create the finished product (subtractive technology). 3-D printers are an additive technology – that builds up the finished product layer-by-layer. There are also 3-D scanners which digitize info about dimension and shape.

In addition to describing the new digital design technologies, this title describes changes in the attitude towards intellectual property – and how this affects the design process. Crowd-sourcing means that design plans are freely available. In other words, anybody can improve upon a given design without worrying about copyright or patent infringement.  Sharing and collaborating yield good design. (Cardmakers – this is like using a sketch to spark off your design idea. Scrapbookers – this is like scraplifting. You start off with somebody else’s idea, then build upon it. Then you post your project in a forum for all to see.)

Another important idea is that digital advances mean that mass production is no longer a necessity. Economical boutique production is possible. You can make what you need or want in small quantities. Better  for the environment – and self-expression. Chris Anderson uses the term “industrial artisan”. You can access digital technology to make replacement parts for household items like bath plugs or shower curtain rings. Or amazing, fantastical one-off craft creations – a steampunk sculpture, for instance. Digi manufacturing works on both the practical and creative levels. And little guys can compete price-wise with the big fish.

This book is an illuminating read. It describes game-changing tech and social developments which no designer – or crafter – should ignore. My main criticism is that for a book with such visual subject matter, a highly-illustrated format would have been helpful. There aren’t nearly enough photos in this book. It would have been great to see pics of the products which were described.

Chris Anderson, the author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, is a writer and entrepreneur. He was the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, the technology title. 

If you are interested in developments in 3-D design, you might like this link: 

Note: I was not supplied with a review copy of this title. I purchased the e-book myself because I was engaged and excited by the subject.