Making It as a Maker

February 17, 2013

Barbara Lubell’s Hanukah party is a winter highlight in my neck of the woods, a down-home multigenerational gathering of Woodstock area artists and musicians socializing, singing, and eating a Whole Lotta Latkes. This year, along with bean salad for the potluck (only designated people get to make latkes), I had in tow a copy of Make Magazine’s: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing.


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Our little corner of the Catskills has caught the 3d printing bug. Up the road from Barbara, Ward Fleming is working with some homeschool kids to make elegant 3d prints of yoga poses while my 12 year old daughter built her own printer with the help of Washington Open Object Fabricators (WOOF) Club. But our neighbor Tom Cushwa has become something of a 3D printing star. One of his 3D models was featured in Make as a challenge print. “People are using your Owl to calibrate their printers!” I told him as I tried one-handed to flip to the pertinent page without dropping my plate of latkes and smoked turkey. Tom laughed, amused by my enthusiasm. He hadn’t seen the magazine and I surprised him. Tom’s day job is making 3d models for film and TV and like the rest of us, 3d printing is a new found hobby. About a year ago, he put some models on Thingiverse, but in spite of the popularity of some of his models, he noted with some puzzlement, “The only people making money on 3d printing are the people selling the printers.”

In  Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson seems to concede this point. The book makes the case for a new model of manufacturing built on equal helpings of technological and cultural change. This New Industrial Revolution is based on open hardware and open organizations where “bits” are given away while “atoms” are commodified. So Tom shouldn’t quit his day job. Yet Anderson isn’t making the case for piracy. When businesses with an open approach are successful, they give more than they take. But it can be hard to pinpoint where, how, and by whom value is being created in an open business. They’re more like living, breathing ecosystems than meatworks. Making a business out of “making” is indeed a puzzle.

Inventing is Easy

Once the sole domain of big industrial enterprises and universities, tools for rapid prototyping are finding their way into the hands of a public who embraces “DIY Digital Design.” Anderson likens the accessibility of 3d printers, CNC machines and Arduino boards to the shift from industrial publishing to desktop publishing three decades ago. The shift is more than a matter of hardware. The shift is also fueled by a public who enthusiastically documents their maker experiments in both process and outcomes, which then encourages others to- as Kelly Franznick of Blink puts it- “Find, Cut, Paste, Tweak.” Or to complete the cycle: Find, Cut, Paste, Tweak, Tweet.  The sheer volume of tools, libraries, design ideas and products arrived at in this way lends credence to Anderson’s moniker for these DIYers and those who cater to them: The Maker Movement.

As Anderson describes it, the core strength of the new industrial model lies in product development. But, technologically speaking, the tools for rapid prototyping aren’t so different  than those that support “small batch manufacturing.” The board that runs my daughter’s 3D printer was made at Metrix Create:Space in Seattle. The equipment used to manufacturer the board is available to rent by anyone who comes through the door whatever their intentions are. And any manufacturing facility that gives free desk space and an outlet to any comer is definitely doing something new. (You will be encouraged to buy a Tab from the vending machine.)

New Methods, New Markets.

What’s more, small time players can “rent the tools of production” from “web-centric” commodity manufacturers in China. So, even a start-up can produce goods en masse. But one of the most intriguing ideas in Makers is that it isn’t necessary for companies to get big or get out. Anderson argues that the right elements are in place for “a mass market of niche products” where businesses can make a living by catering to “markets of tens of thousands”— big enough to serve but small enough to deter heated competition. When, as Anderson says, “it costs no more to produce every product different,” then a new category of products opens up, the “many products [that] make more sense in units of hundreds, not millions.” While Anderson concedes most of the current examples of this approach so far are “trivial,” WOOF club members Bethany Weeks, Brandon Bowman, and Matt Rogge intend to bring maker spaces to the edge of underdeveloped rural areas where small batch manufactured goods can support core development projects like access to clean water and sanitation. Far from trivial.

Customers at the Core

By definition, a new product is one that has yet to be accepted by a market. So a maker has to create at least two things, a product and a market for that product. In a study of 30 entrepreneurs who grew companies to revenues of 50 million dollars and up, University of Virginia Business Professor Saras Sarasvathy found a common strategy for creating a market among these success stories. They created a market in tandem with product development: “Entrepreneurs focus on building partnerships right from the start. In fact, the ideal beginning for a successful startup seemed to be the induction of customers into strategic partnerships.” In the tech sector where the lifecycle of a product can be very short indeed, entrepreneurs like Ash Maura aim to reduce the turbulence of an ever-changing marketplace by staying connected with customers through every phase of a product’s life. As Maura puts it in Running Lean, “Building in stealth is a really bad idea,” because “Life’s too short to build something nobody wants.” To keep Metrix afloat, owner Matt Westervelt says he just has to stay slightly ahead of the curve of “the machines people want at home.” And it’s likely he’ll be able to do so given that running Metrix puts him in daily contact with makers.  Likewise, Anderson advises “making in public” as the best way to ensure that an inventor/entrepreneur’s resources are well spent. Platforms like Kickstarter crowdsource free market research while also generating pre-sales and word of mouth support: “If your project doesn’t hit its funding target, it probably would have failed in the marketplace anyway.” For some manufacturing businesses, Anderson envisions an even bigger role for the crowd. The open hardware model relies heavily on community contributions for R&D, documentation, marketing, and support. When “most participants are not employees” entrepreneurs need to maintain a “well constructed architecture of participation” that blends in a happy way with more traditional business structures. (“Open” and “dynamic” are two words that your tax attorney, accountant and banker still don’t want to hear.)

You Can’t Copy and Paste a Network

So, you’ve proved that there’s a market for your great new thing on Kickstarter, or Thingiverse, or wherever great new things will show up next, what prevents another innovator from jumping on your idea and taking off with it? Both bits and atoms are easy to copy. On the other hand, a network is hard to reproduce.  In a Find, Cut, Paste, Tweak, Tweet world, Anderson believes sustainability is derived from strategic relationships, “Not a community of customers but a community of other companies and innovators who are building products that are designed to work with and support your own.”  The importance of strategic relationships to new ventures is not specific to “the new industrial model.” Saras Sarasvathy uses UHaul as a case study to foreground how a nationwide company gained a footing by getting family, then friends, then friends of friends to buy or lease one or two trucks each in a few cities in the US. While the notion of renting trucks for short term use is a simple one, UHaul developed a competitive advantage from the ground up one relationship at a time: “Together, this vast network of stakeholders formed a substantial entry barrier to any imitator who would have to risk a large capital outlay to compete.” Matt Rogge’s years in the Peace Corps building remote water and sanitation systems gives him an on the ground understanding of what it takes to build infrastructure in under-resourced areas. But importantly, over those years he was also building  personal relationships with development organizations that are poised to be the strategic partners/customers that Sarasvathy views as a critical success factor. Combined with his strong ties to a nexus of Open3D innovators, the hard-to-copy advantages of his particular venture begin to add up.

The cost of participation in an open system is giving something away, but when the right set of partnerships come together open systems can create value- of one sort or another- for all participants. The challenge is to understand the value chain and where we might fit within it. Anderson overreaches sometimes. Open Everything is a silly as Open Nothing. Plenty of successful ventures have launched without Kickstarter. And the world may be flattened by the New Industrial Revolution, but it ain’t a pancake. Where you are still matters a good deal. Despite the hyperbole, Makers: The Industrial Revolution is a nice introduction to some of the most interesting recent developments in technology and manufacturing.  Reading it may help makers to reflect on their own customized blend of atoms and bits.

This post was instigated by Skip Walter and his class Designing a  Human Centered Venture in the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.

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Manufacturing, Social Impact, Systems