‘Makers’: Chris Anderson on DIY Manufacturing

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Just as the Internet enabled anyone with a computer to become an entrepreneur, today’s newest technologies have spawned a DIY (do it yourself) micro-manufacturing movement, so anyone can be both inventor and manufacturer. Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, explains how all the pieces are coming together — from more affordable 3D printers to crowd-sourced designs — to create the conditions for a new way of manufacturing. In this interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Anderson talks about the ways in which technology is changing the limits of what inventors can do, what the Maker Movement is, why he started DIY Drones and how the new technologies will drive the global economy.

An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: You open Makers with a story of your maternal grandfather’s automatic sprinkler system invention in the 1940s. You later argue that if he had been born in 1998 rather than 1898, he would have been an entrepreneur rather than just an inventor. What challenges did he face, and what conditions have changed that would make his experience so different today?

Chris Anderson: That story washed over me as I was writing the book. I was taken back to my summers with my grandfather, reflecting on his world and mine. He was a Swiss immigrant who had come to Hollywood. He worked in a studio during the day and was an inventor at night. He was quite skilled. He was a machinist, he had a workshop, he had all sorts of metalworking equipment, so he was able to take his ideas from the mechanical drafting table to a prototype. But then at that point, he didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t know how to bring it to market and neither did most people. It was hard; you needed to have a factory and distribution and all those other skills. He did what you had to do in those days, which was patent it and then try to find someone to license it. He was lucky and was able to find a company to license it. Eventually that company released the product, which was very successful, and our very small family fortune came out of that. The point was that he was an inventor, but he could not become an entrepreneur because those additional steps of mass production, distribution, marketing, et cetera, were essentially inaccessible in those days. All you could do was patent, license and hope for the best. You had to lose control of your invention. You had to hand it off to somebody else. He was a happy man and one of the rare, successful inventors of that era, but I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I didn’t follow his path. I also didn’t have machine skills, so I really couldn’t do that.

[For the book,] I revisited that, and thought, what would Grandpa do today? I actually decided to try it, although ironically enough, I don’t even have a garden. As an exercise, I decided to figure out what a Maker Movement automatic sprinkler would be. I talked to some folks and spent some time in communities, looked at some options, did a little research and ended up with something called Open Sprinkler. [It] is a web-connected … Arduino-based sprinkler system where you can tap into free weather reports…. Today, it exists as a product. What’s different is that, of course, I didn’t need any of his skills to make it because things are so much easier today. I didn’t need mass production. I didn’t need to have my own factory because we have access to the factories in the cloud. There are services that will do it for you, and we didn’t need marketing because we had communities. We had the web, so it’s possible to go from inventor to entrepreneur quite easily today without special skills in a way that you couldn’t 50 years ago.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the Maker Movement, which you mentioned?

Anderson: The Maker Movement is the web generation meets the real world. It is all of these community and collaboration and innovation models of the web but applied to physical things. There’s a number of enabling elements. One of them is the fact that we now have desktop digital fabrication tools which are cheap and easy and accessible. These are things like 3D printers and laser cutters. You can buy a sewing machine from Sears, a relatively mid-range one, which is probably computer controlled…. Those used to be sophisticated industrial tools, and they are now the sort of thing that you can buy at Sears. What that means is that the web generation whose instinct is to start their ideas on screen now has an easy way to turn them into a physical object. You don’t need skills because the machine does all the work. You just treat it like the printer on your desktop. It’s getting increasingly easy to just push a button, and then out it comes.

Second is that access to manufacturing, access to factories and mass production, is now also increasingly easy. It has basically turned into a web service, and there are services like Alibaba, Mfg.com or even high-end 3D printing and laser-cutting services … that are all just a click away. Those ideas started on screen, [and they] can just be uploaded into the cloud and produced at any scale. You can make one, or you can make 10,000. It’s simply a matter of clicking the right service, clicking the right buttons and then entering your credit card. It’s a little bit like photo printing software that you have on your desktop. You can print a copy of your photo on your local printer or you can upload it to a service and have it turned into books or Christmas cards to send to your friends. It’s almost as simple as that with physical goods.

The third thing that really defines this is the notion of community. One of the things that characterizes the web generation is the instinct to do things in public, the instinct to share, the instinct to collaborate with people who you don’t know, the instinct to apply [invention creation and production] to physical things … that need to be produced and sold. [It] is an innovation model that traditional manufacturing typically doesn’t have. When you see the web generation do it, it connects everything from Kickstarter and Etsy to more niche communities like the one that I run focused on drones and aerial robotics. When you see the power that innovation model brought to traditional manufacturing and physical goods, you can see just how effective it can be in transforming the real world the way we transform the traditional world.

Knowledge@Wharton: You, yourself, are a maker. In addition to printing 3D furniture for your children’s dollhouse, you started your own company, DIY Drones. Tell us what inspired you to start this business and what you hope to accomplish.

Anderson: I have no business being in the drones business, yet here I am. It started as an exercise in parenting gone badly. My day job is to review products, and one day I brought home two boxes from the office which I thought would make a great GeekDad weekend. We started a thing called GeekDad, which is all about projects to do with your kids to get them excited about science and technology. One of the boxes was a Lego Mindstorms robotics box and the other box was a remote-controlled airplane. I thought, on Saturday we’ll build a robot; on Sunday, we’ll fly a plane; it’ll be awesome. How can I go wrong? On Saturday, we did build these Lego robots, and I love Lego Mindstorms. I was actually on Lego’s advisory board for a while, and I just think it’s the best thing ever. It’s super easy to use, but at the end of the morning, you end up with a three-wheeled vehicle that basically goes forward until it sees the wall and then backs up. The kids were just incredibly unimpressed. They had just seen Transformers. Their expectations for robots are a little higher than that. They expect [robots] to be three stories tall and fire missiles, and it’s really hard to compete with the computer graphics of Hollywood, which has kind of ruined robotics for children. They were unimpressed, and I was like, “Okay, that’s fine. Tomorrow we’ll fly the plane. That will be cool, and we’ll have video acrobatics.” We go into the park, and it goes immediately into a tree. Then I mortified the children by getting in the tree to try to retrieve it. It was kind of a failure of a weekend. The kids were hard to impress. I had once again been unable to excite them on science and technology.

I was reflecting on the whole thing and I thought, “How could I have gone wrong?” These Lego Mindstorms came with these sensors and gyros and accelerometers and compass sensors and Blue Tooth, which you connect to GPS. I bet the Lego could have flown that plane better than me. Then I thought, “Huh, well, actually maybe the Lego could have flown that plane better than me.” I got the kids together one last time, and we made a Lego autopilot, worked on it a little bit and then posted it on Slashdot.org, which was an exciting thing in those days …. The kids then, of course, lost interest again, probably because I became so obsessive.

But I realized that the technology in your phone, in your iPhone or your Android — the incredible innovation sensors and GPS and wireless and cameras and processors and memory and all that — meant that basically it’s an autopilot. Drone technology was in your pocket. It was really just an app away, and it was time for us regular folks to try to do it.

So I created a community called DIY Drone and shared my ignorance because, by the way, I knew nothing about this. Five years later, it’s now a company, a multimillion-dollar robotics company with big factories in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. We put more drones in the air each year than the whole U.S. military has in its arsenal, and I’m just a guy, you know? Five years ago, I was a dad messing around with Legos, and now I’m in the aerospace industry competing with some of the biggest companies out there. That’s all possible because the tools — the technologies and supply chains — are basically open and available to all. It’s the web innovation model: lowering the barriers to entry… putting the tools of production in the hands of everybody, applying it to physical goods…. If I can do it knowing so little about the subject matter in just a few years, I felt anybody could.

Knowledge@Wharton: There has been a lot of talk about bringing manufacturing home to the U.S. and about how to help small businesses thrive. The DIY Maker Movement or the micro-manufacturing movement has not come up in any of these discussions as far as we’ve heard and in sort of the broader media. What implications does this movement have for the U.S. economy?

Anderson: I subtitled the book “The New Industrial Revolution” for a reason. I really do think that this has the potential to move the needle for the American economy, that this is exactly what this country does best. It’s small- to medium-sized businesses, it’s entrepreneurship, it’s innovation. It’s the web model applied to a much bigger market, which is the real world. Right now, I would say that the Maker Movement is about five years old…. The enabling tools, things like 3D printers, have just reached the moments where maybe the Macintosh was in 1984 or 1985, where they work out of the box. You buy a box, plug it in and you can start printing just like that. It’s easy and accessible to anybody. I think that the next step is probably to get them into schools. Introduce design back into the school curriculum, digital design, and just spread the word. When you look at the incredible success of sites like Kickstarter, you can see that it’s starting to take off. Kickstarter is a billion-dollar enterprise at this point. Etsy is another billion-dollar enterprise. Companies like Quirky are also on that scale.

They are starting to industrialize Maker Movements faster than I think people realize. There’s a change in what’s called Makerspaces, like tech shops, which are now spreading around the country. There are hundreds of Makerspaces probably in a city near you. The U.S. government is, in fact, backing this in two distinct ways. One is the so-called Jobs Act. The Obama administration pushed it through, and it’s allowing more crowd funding. Kickstarter is actually a pre-sale, but crowdfunding would also include stuff like crowd equity backing of these projects. A second [way] is Darpa [The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Department of Defense agency responsible for the development of new technologies for the military]. They’re sponsoring the creation of Makerspaces in thousands of American schools, which will be rolling out over time. But that’s evidence that the administration is behind this. How does this change the economy? First of all, manufacturing has never left the United States. We’re still the biggest manufacturer in the world. What left were a lot of manufacturing jobs.

The reason manufacturing stayed in the United States is because it’s increasingly automated, which is great, but that’s just the way you compete in a world where you don’t have low-cost labor. But it isn’t the roots of the middle class for millions of Americans the way it once was, and things like shop class and industrial arts are no longer in the curriculum. The way to bring it back is to lower the barriers to entry, make it more accessible to the web generation. What was great about the web was that all you needed was a laptop. You simply open a browser and you can start a company. I think that was increasingly the case for physical goods as well. You could open a browser, go to a site, design something, press a couple of buttons and five days later, you’ve got a box with the thing in front of your desk. You don’t even need a 3D printer; it’s simply a matter of just accessing the tools, accessing the technology that’s in the cloud, the services that are in the cloud already. That moment means we have an opportunity to take millions of people out there with ideas and turn them into entrepreneurs, parts of community collectively making things, the Long Tail itself.

The Long Tail is my first book, and we saw what putting the tools of production in the hands of everybody did in the digital realm with content and information software. Now I think we’re going to see the long tail play out in the physical realm. Tens of thousands of products is too small for mass manufacturing but too large for a single person. Those are the long tail opportunities and that’s something that we do really well. We’ve seen the rise in artisanal, we’ve seen the rise of boutique in things like food and clothing. Think about those same forces playing out in physical goods. Would I do robotics or bicycles or furnishings or whatever you want. Go to any of these sites, Kickstarter or Etsy, and you’ll see it at play.

Then you can start to see that some of those entrepreneurs, some of those innovators, actually do have a really good idea that could scale, and they now have the ability to do it. I can imagine 10 years from now that we will have an explosion of micro factories and start-ups in the manufacturing space which bring back more jobs and a different kind of manufacturing to the U.S., doing something that we do very well, which is not low-cost labor but high-frequency innovation and web style collaboration.

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