John Robb reports what he regards as a breakthrough: a micromanufacturing start-up that makes a piece of plastic for mounting an iPhone on a tripod.
Jeff Vail has wondered, in the past, when micromanufacturing will break out of its current ghetto of making trinkets and stuff for niche markets, and instead produce “primary goods.” This might, in fairness, be regarded as falling under that “trinket” heading (one of Robb’s commenters compares the product to the Hula Hoop).
But on closer inspection Robb’s enthusiasm might be at least in part justified, because — no matter how seemingly trivial the product itself — its method of manufacture sets precedents that could be used for making more important stuff. They used a 3-D printer for rapid prototyping, and then used Kickstart to acquire a $10k injection molding setup. They’ve since produced about four thousand units.
If Kickstarter can be used for this, it can be used to fund a basic set of homebrew machine tools of the kind being developed at Open Source Ecology. And if such crowd-funded machinery can be used to make an iPhone accessory, it can be used to make spare parts to keep appliances running as the old corporate supply chains at GE and Westinghouse begin to break down under the effects of Peak Oil and cascading Chapter Elevens.
That will, in my opinion, be the decisive tipping point toward a genuine micromanufacturing economy: when the micromanufacturers start filling in the gaps left by the retreat of the mass-production economy. That’s precisely the way Jane Jacobs, in The Economy of Cities, described the rise of the Japanese bicycle industry: Individual bike repair shops, thousands of miles from the manufaturers of spare parts in America and Western Europe, began to custom machine their own replacement parts. Eventually they networked to produce entire bikes.
The real micromanufacturing revolution, likewise, will deserve the name of a genuine revolution when it starts engaging in serious import substitution.