Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be
about applying them to the real world.
This story is about the next 10 years.
Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital – the long tail of bits.
Now the same is happening to manufacturing – the long tail of things.
The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands or more. They can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.
Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company too.
“Hardware is becoming much more like software,” as MIT professor Eric von Hippel puts it. That’s not just because there’s so much software in hardware these days, with products becoming little more than intellectual property wrapped in commodity materials, weather it’s the code that drives the off-the-shelf chips in gadgets or the 3-D design files that drive manufacturing. It’s also because of the availability of common platforms, easy-to-use tools, Web-based collaboration, and Internet distribution.
We’ve seen this picture before: It’s what happens just before monolithic industries fragment in the face of countless small entrants, from the music industry to newspapers. Lower the barriers to entry and the crowd pours in.
The academic way to put this is that global supply chains have become scale-free, able to serve the small as well as the large, the garage inventor and Sony, This change is driven by two forces. First, the explosion in cheap and powerful prototyping tools, which have become easier to use by non-engineers. And second, the economic crisis had triggered an extraordinary shift in the business practices of (mostly) Chinese factories, which have become increasingly flexible, Webcentic, and open to custom work. The result has allowed online innovation to extend to the real world. As Cory Doctorow puts it in his new book, Maker, “The days of companies with names like ‘General Electric’ and ‘General Mills’ and General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.”
A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowed sourcing, user generated content – all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.
In short, atoms are the new bits.
**This is the abbreviated version of an article I read in Wired Magazine. I found it so relevant to our society and the direction I see the business world heading that I want to share it with as many like minded people as I can.**