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Review: Makers: The new industrial revolution (by Chris Anderson)

Book: Makers: The new industrial revolution
Author: Chris Anderson
Publisher: Crown Business (October 2, 2012)

The cover story of this month’s issue of Wired Magazine is all about how “the new MakerBot Replicator might just change your world.” Indeed, Wired has been pimping the do-it-yourself world of 3D printing, robotics, and the maker movement aggressively over the past few months. It should come as no surprise that Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book, Makers: The new industrial revolution is being released this month as well.

Anderson writes on the maker revolution — that is, the intersection of manufacturing with a punk way of thinking. Do-it-yourself product creation, new markets for sharing ideas, and new technologies that allow for affordable, small-scale manufacturing, he argues, will transform the global economy.

The emerging maker economy is a realization of Alvin Toffler‘s prosumers: “proactive consumers” who become active in the design and creation of goods and services, and shift the responsibilities of product creation toward the consumer, not the producer.

Anderson dives deep into the observation that the old rules of economies of scale (which require large run sizes to leverage) and specialization (focusing your efforts on one unique task) break apart:

Increasingly, when computers are running the production machines, it costs no more to make each product different. If you’ve ever received a catalog or magazine in the mail that has a personalized message for you, that’s a formerly one-size-fits-all production machine –the printing press– turned into digital one-size-fits- one machine, using little more than a big version of the desktop inkjet printer. Likewise when you buy a cake with fancy icing from the supermarket. That icing was applied by a robot arm –it can make each cake design different as quickly as making them all the same– personalizing it costs no more to do, yet the supermarket can charge more for it because it is perceived as more valuable. The old model of expensive custom machines that had to make the same thing in vast numbers to justify to tooling expense is fading fast.

Indeed, the retail sector is transforming from a business of selling things into one of creating experiences or perceived personal value for consumers. Anderson calls this “happiness economics.” The digitization of components and ideas and realizing them with new, low-cost, small scale manufacturing allow people to cut, paste, remix, and share their creations alike, with the potential to create a new market based on creative ideas and their related design files.

The book focuses on four technologies that are leading the DIY and small scale manufacturing revolution: CNC machines, laser cutters, and 3D scanners. All of these are common at Fab Labs and maker hack “factories” around the world.

While Anderson captures the essence of the maker movement, I feel he fails to connect it with the parallel revolution happening in the software and microelectronics industries, especially where these ideas are expressed as accessible maker tools such as the Arduino. He shines, however, as he looks toward a future where the same revolution is transforming biology (bioengineering) and other fields that previously required expensive, dedicated laboratories. For only a few thousand dollars today, an individual can acquire key components for genetic manipulation –something that, only a few years ago, cost labs 100- if not 1,000-times that amount. And these costs are still decreasing.

Dangerous or not, a revolution is happening. And, Anderson is spreading the word.

In light of the maker revolution, are schools preparing kids for the wrong economy?


Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

Quotes from the book were extracted from a galley proof, and may change in the final publication.

On "keeping America competitive"…

Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. and lead author of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box last Friday:

From the report’s description:

So where does America stand relative to its position of five years ago when the Gathering Storm book was prepared? The unanimous view of the authors is that our nation’s outlook has worsened. The present volume, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited, explores the tipping point America now faces. Addressing America’s competitiveness challenge will require many years if not decades; however, the requisite federal funding of much of that effort is about to terminate.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited provides a snapshot of the work of the government and the private sector in the past five years, analyzing how the original recommendations have or have not been acted upon, what consequences this may have on future competitiveness, and priorities going forward. In addition, readers will find a series of thought- and discussion-provoking factoids–many of them alarming–about the state of science and innovation in America.

Fab Lab: Build 'almost anything'

“The Fab Lab program has strong connections with the technical outreach activities of a number of partner organizations, around the emerging possibility for ordinary people to not just learn about science and engineering but actually design machines and make measurements that are relevant to improving the quality of their lives.” [MIT Center for Bits and Atoms] Moreover, each Fab Lab is connected with others around the world, sharing ideas and experiences. Every Fab Lab user is required to document how they created products so that their inventions may be replicated anywhere around the world.

Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Fab Lab at Century College in Minnesota. A Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop with an array of computer controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, and is the brainchild of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld. The facility, faculty and institutional support for the initiative is amazing. Loaded with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other rapid prototyping and small-scale fabrication tools, allows uses to make “almost anything.”

My take on Fab Labs is that they provide school students and other members of the community with valuable expertise and resources to transform their creative ideas into tangible products … and, hopefully, meaningful outcomes and innovations. Since the Fab Labs blend social and fabrication technologies, I feel that school systems should consider either investing in the concept for every school, or collaborate actively with an institution that already has a Fab Lab.

Last November, I also had the privilege of visiting the Fab Lab hosted by the Waag Society in Amsterdam (the video in this link is worth watching). A couple of the key differences is that this Fab Lab is open to the public (at a cost), but is also integrated with the other services provided by the Waag Society (i.e., Creative Learning Lab, incubators) and its use is eligible for subsidization by the Dutch government through innovation grants.

An observation from my whirlwind tours of both facilities is that is the Minnesota-based Fab Lab seems to produce things that already exist, whereas the Dutch Fab Lab produces many new creations — things that have not existed yet. The question on my mind is, why is there a creativity gap? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Or, is it structural:

  • Is it because our education system is no longer producing many creatives (focusing instead on creating functionaries)?
  • Is it because the Dutch have access to a broader support system that draws creatives to the Fab Lab?

Or, is something else happening?

Reversing America's hidden brain drain

A few days ago, Minnesota Public Radio‘s Gary Eichten shared a clip of Duke’s Vivek Wadhwa, speaking about his research on the effects of globalization in the United States:

After researching the impact of globalization on U.S. competitiveness in the tech industry, Vivek Wadhwa was surprised to see his findings contradict commonly-held ideas. He recently discussed his research at the City Club of Cleveland and the policies he says are taking the U.S. in the wrong direction.

He states that we need not worry about a shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S., despite alarms sounding off to the contrary by public policy leaders. If we provide incentives for U.S.-educated foreign nationals to remain in the country rather than requiring them to leave after they complete university studies, we can build and maintain the human capital required to remain competitive in the 21st century. For more, listen to his talk at the MPR website

(Thanks to Carole Gupton for forwarding this item.)