Book Review: 'Makers,' by Chris Anderson
The New Industrial Revolution
By Chris Anderson
Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart in the ’90s version of Star Trek, used to walk up to a cabinet on the USS Enterprise and say, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” A steaming cup would magically materialize, as Chris Anderson recalls in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. The cabinet was called the Replicator, and it produced food along with the dishes, napkins, and silverware.
We can’t make the tea with 3D printers yet, but we can make the cup, the saucer, and the spoon. 3D printers, laser cutters, and digitally controlled milling machines are here and getting cheaper by the month. There’s even a machine called the Replicator, designed as an open-source project and marketed by MakerBot Industries, a company based in Brooklyn. It costs $1,750, fits on a desktop, and prints designs, made by the user or downloaded from the Web, using a nozzle similar to the one in an inkjet printer, spewing successive layers of molten plastic onto a moving platform. As each new layer of plastic is laid, a plastic mug begins to rise. Depending on its size, it might take 45 minutes to complete.
Enthusiasts have coalesced around these machines, much as hackers did around the early personal computer. They range from scientists who want to print organs to designers who want to print instant prototypes to manufacturers who want to customize small batches of products. Broadly, they call themselves makers. They meet in collective workshops called maker spaces, such as Tech Shop, to share tools and expertise. Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired, knights these makers as future industrialists who will drive a new age of manufacturing.
Just as the Web changed, redistributed, and sped up the diffusion of information—and created and destroyed businesses along the way—Anderson argues that desktop production and design will change manufacturing from a cumbersome process based on capital to a flexible one based on creativity. And in his estimation, the change will be orders of magnitude more important economically. The Web accounts for less than 20 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to Anderson. The vast majority of American economic output comes from making, moving, and selling physical goods.
It is, in Anderson’s eyes, going to be an amateur movement. He writes, “It’s exactly what happened with the Web, which was colonized first by technology and media companies, who used it to do better what they already did. Then software and hardware advances made the Web easier to use for regular folks (it was ‘democratized’), and they charged in with their own ideas, expertise, and energy. Today the vast majority of the Web is built by amateurs, semipros, and people who don’t work for big technology and media companies.”
The do-it-yourself revolution has yet to upend everyday life. It is, though, revolutionizing things like accessories for Lego mini figures. Anderson writes about the startup BrickArms, which began when software engineer Will Chapman wanted to make realistic looking weapons for his kids’ Lego figurines. Now he mass-produces tiny M-16 rifles, bazookas, and Tommy guns for children worldwide. Anderson quotes Chapman saying, “I bring in more revenue on a slow BrickArms day than I ever did working as a software engineer.”
Anderson’s revolution is not just about 3D printers, of course. It’s about technology letting ideas from individuals blossom in different ways. The Web allows an inventor to find investors on Kickstarter and engineers on social media sites, and to put their designs out to tender on sites like MFG.com, where machine shops around the world bid on production. Anderson is a maker, too. In 2007 he started a company called DIY Drones, which sells open source mini helicopters and airplanes with programmable autopilot. Most of the design work comes from an online community, which serves both as customer and engineer. The company broke $3 million in revenue last year and just opened a factory in Tijuana. The CEO of DIY Drones, 26-year-old Jordi Muñoz, was originally one of Anderson’s designers and customers. Muñoz had never graduated from college but didn’t need to. “I didn’t ask for a résumé,” Anderson writes. “It wasn’t necessary. That guy had already proven himself by making extraordinary things.”
On a larger scale, Anderson cites Local Motors, a new type of car company based in Chandler, Ariz., that crowdsourced the design of a $75,000 Baja racer called the Rally Fighter. The vehicle is as much a Frankencar as an original object. The engine and transmissions come from BMW and General Motors, and the axles from a Ford F-150 truck. The car is partly assembled by the owners as part of the deal, which makes it a sort of kit car as well. The chapter is assembled, in part, from “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits,” an article Anderson wrote for Wired in 2010.
So what has Anderson made here? It’s hard to disagree with him and his outlook for the makers—it’s cool stuff and going to change things. But it’s hard to agree with as much enthusiasm as he seems to demand. Inspiration fatigue sets in by the end of the book. It’s like sitting through a few too many TED talks. Anderson himself betrays signs everywhere of being a bit bored with the grunt work of assembling a soaring outlook. The book is filled with pronouncements like “In short, the Maker Movement has arrived.” He ends the very first chapter not with his own thoughts, but with a long quote from someone else, Cory Doctorow, the co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. Doctorow is also an evangelist for DIYers, and his book, as Anderson acknowledges, is also called Makers. By the end of Anderson’s Makers, it’s almost too easy to imagine him standing before his own Replicator in a close-fitting shirt, displaying all of Patrick Stewart’s gravity and ordering: “Book. DIY Movement. Inspiring.” Then out pops this one.