A Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy (BRIE) Working Paper 2016-7 by Anna Waldman Brown, originally published here.
“Many believe that modern technologies such as 3D printers, sensors, and networking capabilities provide an unprecedented opportunity to support a renewal of localized production – especially when combined with “Maker Movement” trends toward customization, user engagement, local and small-batch production, and reparability. Others are unconvinced, and instead forecast increased efficiency in high volume production and global supply chains. Let us state the core questions: will either the Maker Movement or these dramatic new technologies fundamentally influence the basic structures of market competition? Or, will this all be merely an interesting but marginal blip along the road as the technologies themselves are absorbed into automated high volume production? What are the clues? What do decision-makers across industry and policy need to know in order to properly evaluate this potential?
With this paper, we look beyond the revolutionary rhetoric of the Maker Movement in an attempt to consider its effects on a more practical level. We define the Maker Movement (also known as the Do-It-Yourself or Fab Movement) as a crusade for more accessible design and creation – incorporating a mix of new technologies, philosophies, and business models. This Movement is especially tied to the concepts of digital fabrication, public access to tools through community workshops (Fab Labs, hackerspaces, makerspaces, repair cafés, TechShops, etc.), the Internet of Everything/interconnected devices, and Jeremy Rifkin’s concept of the “zero marginal cost society.” We employ a vague definition here because the concept itself is nebulous and ill-defined; depending upon whom one asks, this Movement is a “bourgeois pass-time,” the “new industrial revolution, ”the future of interdisciplinary education, the impetus for a wealth of new hardware startups, and/or yet another overhyped and impossible vision of techno-utopia.
This essay will focus upon whether or not the Maker Movement might substantially disrupt traditional manufacturing, or alternatively at least create an enduring niche position in evolving manufacturing. Part I examines this from three perspectives: (1) Redistributed Production, (2) Personalized Fabrication, and (3) After-Market Repair and Customization.
The idealistic devotees of the Maker-Industrial Revolution argue that the particular confluence of Maker ideas and technology will lead to a hybrid form of production, combining the scale and efficiency of high-volume manufacture with the benefit to local economies provided by small, artisanal businesses. We divide these idealists into the Trekkies who imagine a thoroughly radical and (we will argue) science fictional manufacturing revolution, and the moderates who foresee significant changes but not a complete overhaul of the current manufacturing paradigm. We are focusing here on the “moderate Trekkies.”
By contrast, there are a group of skeptical realists who recognize possibilities, but consider that the impact of the tools and the Maker Movement will be more restrained. They tend to step past the Maker rhetoric around “democratization,” doubtful that this is an attainable or reasonable objective. Skeptical realists argue that, despite some impact on marketing strategies, products, and factory tools, the Maker Movement will not lead to radical changes in systems of production or current power structures; 3D printers, other digital fabrication tools, and open-source technologies have already been in use for decades without forcing any substantial shifts to production models. High-volume manufacturers already produce small batches of customized pens and T-shirts featuring company logos, so skeptics believe that the addition of more complex, customizable elements would likely follow the same traditional manufacturing model. Although many new micro-enterprises have arguably emerged as a direct result of the Maker Movement and related technologies, the skeptics don’t believe that the cumulative effect of these businesses will significantly affect the current high-volume manufacturing paradigm – which, by most calculations, is extraordinarily cost-effective for both consumers and corporations.
These skeptics may still be fervent believers in the overall potential of the Maker Movement – they simply don’t buy into the idea that this Movement and related technologies will itself drive substantial shifts in the current production landscape. Compelling evidence from the entrepreneurial community indicates that this Movement has had a significant impact upon both artisanal businesses and more ambitious hardware startups – and yet the skeptic would point out that, as Maker-entrepreneurs scale up their startups, they tend to follow traditional paths of either high-volume manufacturing or boutique artisanship. For example, the New York-based company MakerBot, once heralded as a pioneer in “democratizing manufacturing” through their affordable 3D printers, recently moved all their own production to China. (There are, however, regional desktop 3D printer competitors that kept their local production – such as Ultimaker in the Netherlands and Type A Machines in California.) Given the ease of high-volume manufacturing and economies of scale, the skeptic would argue that many Maker startups will either follow MakerBot’s less-than-revolutionary lead or else remain small and non-competitive.”
Read the full paper here.