The Makers’ Mark: Innovation, not Manufacturing

In my last post here I asked readers what technologies would “bring the biggest changes to the most companies and industries?” A couple people said that 3D printing and the other technologies of rapid prototyping should be on the list. The costs of these printers has plummeted in recent years, to the point that they’re within the budgets of many people.

Combine that with prototyping shops and factories that are set to accept and build small orders and, the argument goes, we’re on the brink of a major revolution in how things get made. As a WIRED article put it a while ago, “atoms are the new bits.” And to reinforce this point, WIRED’s cover story this month is “The DIY Revolution Starts Now: How to Make Stuff.”

This is both deeply wrong and absolutely correct.

A case study shows how it’s wrong: A New Yorker article last year (buggy subscription required) profiled nonstop inventor Saul Griffith, who won a MacArthur fellowship in part for coming up with a portable, accurate eyeglass making machine. This was a triumph of the DIY movement and hugely beneficial for the rural populations of the developing world, except that it wasn’t. Griffith learned that his machine solved a nonexistent problem.

People in the developing world don’t lack cheap eyeglasses. Chinese factories turn these out far more cheaply that Griffith’s invention could, so an enterprising merchant would be far better off buying a bunch of glasses at wholesale prices and carrying them from village to village rather than carrying around an eyeglass micro-factory.

The lesson here is that manufacturing — the actual process of making products — is generally subject to serious scale economies. Even with the current crop of great prototyping and small-batch fabrication technologies, it’s still a lot cheaper to bang stuff out of large, purpose-built factories. And in addition to their factories, high-volume manufacturers have great bargaining power with their suppliers and logistics providers, leverage you and I don’t have. We also don’t have a lot of clout with our contract manufacturers, so if they experience any hiccups they’re going to take care of their big customers first, not you and me. For all of these reasons, DIYers are not going to be able to compete on price, especially as volume goes up.

This does not mean, though, that the DIY revolution is a pipe dream. It’s a real and important phenomenon, for at least two reasons. First and foremost, it’ll accelerate lead-user innovation — people tinkering with and improving the products that they buy and use. As MIT’s Eric Von Hippel and his colleagues have shown with a lot of great research, lead users are responsible for a surprisingly large portion of all innovation. In a recent study, British consumers were found to be responsible for twice as much innovation, in total, as the country’s companies. Rapid prototyping and the other elements of the Maker ecosystem will surely help users innovate more, better, and faster, which is great news for all of us.

Second, micro-factories and their ilk will turn out products for niche markets, ones too small to be interesting to the big players. As the WIRED article explained,

[Local Motors CEO Jay] Rogers uses the analogy of a jar of marbles, each of which represents a vehicle from a major automaker. In between the marbles is empty space, space that can be filled with grains of sand — and those grains are Local Motors cars.

It’s great news if more sand-sized markets can be served. If any of them grow into marble-sized ones, though, we should expect that the big players will notice, and use their scale economies to try to take them over. This may not seem fair to the pioneers but it’s how capitalism works, and consumers wind up benefitting.

The aftermath of the story about Griffith’s eyeglass micro-factory illustrates a very different model of innovation in the age of scale manufacturing. People in the developing world don’t lack access to cheap glasses, but they did lack a cheap, accurate, and scalable way to get their eyes tested and prescriptions generated. So a team at the MIT Media Lab came up with a way to use standard smart phones to conduct eye exams and generate accurate prescriptions. The team realized that screen quality had improved so much that the phones themselves could be used for vision diagnostics. So their innovation uses one mass-manufactured product (a phone) to determine which mass-manufactured product (eyeglasses) to buy.

What do you take away from this example? Do you think micro-scale manufacturing has a big future, despite the well-documented advantages of scale economies? Or do you agree with me that it’s biggest impact is going to come from accelerating lead-user innovation? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.