So Hard to Have an Original Idea: Atoms are the New Bits

I’ve been thinking about the democratization of manufacturing for a few weeks now, and written two and a half posts that point in this direction and then Joris over at Shapeways brought my attention to an important article by Chris Anderson on Wired. I actually can’t believe I missed it as I get several feeds from Wired, but at least the power of the Internet intervened and the article didn’t completely pass me by.  The great thing is that Chris Anderson’s article saves me from having to research and write a bunch of stuff, and it’s an entertaining read as well.

The article weaves together a number of topics, including crowdsourcing, distributed manufacturing, micro-factories, the long tail of manufacturing, automated manufacturing, small batch manufacturing, global supply chains, and Thomas Friedman’s flat world.  He takes all of these together to paint a picture of the next decade.  If you’re not ready for it, the next world is going to be even more disorienting than the last one.

I think he’s going in the right direction, but I think that we can foresee a time when there will be two types of manufacturers: the gargantuan ones that manufacture pure components that continue to require significant capital to assemble, and the lilliputian companies that do everything else.

When we went to Cairo ten years ago, my wife was tempted by a custom-made silver cartouche with her name.  Of course they didn’t have her name in stock at the jeweler, but it would be no problem because they could get it made by the factory in a matter of minutes.  Curious, I wanted to know about the “factory,” and finally we followed a lithe Egyptian boy into the basement of the shop where we found the factory: a workbench with a selection of silver hieroglyphs, cartouches and a big torch.  The boy proceeded to put the hieroglyphs into a cartouche, and solder the whole thing together right before our very eyes.  Some factory, I thought at the time.

I imagine the hieroglyphs came from a slightly more capable workshop a few blocks over, and the chains came from an even more capable manufacturer further away.

Surely this will be a model for manufacturing in a market simultaneously enabled by inexpensive capacity, squeezed by increasing transportation costs, and challenged by expectations for customization.  Already, many components are manufactured by only one or two factories on the planet – OLED displays come to mind, but memory chips are I believe also in the category – and those factories will continue to ship their products around the world.  But there will be no need for them to ship their memory chips to just a handful of other factories that assemble the chips into boards when that is something that could be accomplished inexpensively in my province, saving the lion’s share of the transportation cost.  By shipping the chips to my more local supplier for assembly onto boards, that supplier can work closely with me to meet my particular needs, resulting in a product that ultimately satisfies and keeps me coming back.


2 Responses to “So Hard to Have an Original Idea: Atoms are the New Bits”

  1. Olga Sasplugas/ Says:

    Glad to know we are on the same page Rene.
    Thanks for helping us preading the word out.
    Regards from the Ponoko team.

  2. renegourley Says:

    Thanks for the pointer, Olga. I like the community aspect of and plan to write about that soon.

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