Disruptive technology can rebuild manufacturing for the internet age

BRITISH manufacturing is not finding it easy. Output shrank once again in the second quarter of 2012, having failed to deliver any significant growth in over a year. Once the workshop of the world, the UK has slipped down the manufacturing league tables.

Does it matter? A few years ago, the answer from many economists would have been a qualified no. Britain had a thriving banking and service economy. Manufacturing was certainly important but, provided there was overall growth, it didn’t matter too much where it came from. Today, opinions are rather different. The question, therefore, is not so much whether the UK should ramp up its manufacturing base, but if and how it can. And here the future holds great promise – in the shape of the nascent Maker movement.

One thing that Britain has never lacked is entrepreneurial inventors. From the great Victorian engineers to modern high-tech whizzkids, it has always been a hotbed of smart new ideas and major innovation. The problems have tended to come in getting those ideas to market. As many successful inventors will tell you, by the time they’ve completed a prototype, registered their patents, secured financing and found a manufacturer, the invention has come to seem the easiest part of the equation.

New technology promises to change all that. Today, you can use the latest computer-aided design (CAD) packages to turn your ideas into digital files, from which a finished object can be speedily and accurately produced. You can then print your product on a 3D printer, or send your files to a factory that can handle small production batches. The old imperative – that the inventor must find a manufacturer – is no longer true.

And it goes further. Traditional inventing is a highly speculative affair – you make something, and you hope people will want it. Thanks to the internet, however, you can road test as you develop. Entrepreneurs can get constant feedback from customers while developing their products. They therefore end up manufacturing something people actually want. Sometimes, they can pre-sell their products, guaranteeing that they have enough cash in hand to take them to the next stage.

There are two business models for the Maker enterprise. The first is the specialist or bespoke. An inventor comes up with a niche product they can manufacture in small batches for a particular market. They won’t sell large quantities, but customisation ensures that their wares command a premium. The second model is potentially more exciting. The inventor comes up with something that may prove to have mass-market appeal. They start out small-scale, perhaps using a specialist small-batch manufacturer. With success comes a scaling up of ambition. Those CAD files get sent to a manufacturer further afield, with the robotic assembly plant required to handle them. And, all the time, the entrepreneur is responding to customer feedback, tweaking here, improving there.

If that sounds hopelessly optimistic, successful large-scale Maker companies are already in existence. The Colorado-based Sparkfun, for example, which operates in the cut-throat world of electronics, has more than 120 employees and annual revenues of around $30m (£18.5m). It’s also growing by 50 per cent a year. This points the way to the future. The image of a few smart people, building major businesses with little more than an internet connection, will soon spread to manufacturing.

We’re still at a very early stage. 3D printers can currently only work with one material at a time, and at a resolution of about 50 micrometers (the thickness of a fine hair). But they are constantly being improved. What’s more, we haven’t begun to experience 3D printing’s potential for creative disruption. Sceptics focus on the shortcomings, but they don’t appreciate the transformations it might lead to.

Conventional large-scale manufacturing is not going to disappear. But Maker technology offers a complementary path, which helps innovators turn their ideas into reality swiftly, and without the financial obstacles they once could not avoid. And it offers the prospect of a future manufacturing economy, shaped like the web itself: bottom-up, broadly distributed, and highly entrepreneurial.

Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, and the author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (Random House Business Books, £20), out now.