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General, Open Hardware, Robots, Technology

Manufacturing as the next ‘big thing’

You’ll have probably come across the following phrase a lot over the last few months.

A  writer will describe a new trend, movement, object or process and hail it as the second coming – well the second industrial revolution at any rate.

I’ve now seen this phrase be attached to 3D Printing, renewables, open source hardware, robotics – I could go on.

Aside from not liking the phrase very much (despite having written that self-same thing as a headline back in 2009) I wonder whether we’re missing a big picture moment here.

What if manufacturing itself is the next big thing?

The vast majority of people think about manufacturing as something straight out of a verse of Jerusalem. All dark satanic mills, oil and grime, a heated inferno of molten metal.

We like 3D printing, because for want of a better word, it’s cool. It speaks to us of our individual sci-fi vision of the future.   When we were eight years old, dreaming of flying cars and jet packs. It’s a world away from production lines, conveyor belts and repetitive, mundane drone drudgery.

This view, is outdated, outmoded and just plain wrong.  My former employer, The Insititute for Manufacturing – and institutions like it – have been banging the drum for the activity for years. Now it seems people are finally beginning to hear the beat.

This week, MakeSpace, an initiative which I’ve written about in the past finally found a home in Cambridge. Fittingly enough the Community Inventing shed will move into the former Institute for Manufacturing building in Mill Lane.

The centre will provide access to the latest manufacturing equipment, from 3D printers to laser cutters, from CNC machines to lathes. This equipment – the type you’d normally only see in an episode of How Do They Do It? – to anyone with an idea, interest, passion or just plain curious.

In Manchester the Omniversity and Fablab has been running for several years, in London Makerhood launched just a few weeks ago. These community driven projects are harnessing the passion people have for making things.

Every town should have one. The Government wants to encourage innovation and enterprise. They can do so easily by backing projects like MakeSpace.

These initiatives will help encourage the next generation. Making them understand the value of making things, the opportunities and potential of fabrication. Above all it teaches people (of all ages) that making things is fun.

Manufacturing has always been about community. In the past this might have been about the geographical community. Your parents and neighbours worked at the local plant, the factory provided community activities and outings. The local shops based their businesses around the needs of the workers. Housing estates were created for the workers to live in. Obviously this wasn’t some sepia-tinted Utopia, but community was at the heart of manufacturing.

It is the same now, we just have different labels.

It’s why the open source hardware movement is gaining ground and entering the mainstream. Making things is fun.  Instead of geographical communities, we now have communities of interest. Digital technology has enabled these networks to grow and flourish.

It has created new businesses. Local Motors, Shapeways, MakerBot, Adafruit, RepRap and the like wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-internet age.

As Bre Pettis said the other day, technology has lowered the barriers to entering the hardware and manufacturing market.

All the things we Geeks extol the virtues of and get excited by, things like NASA and The Space Shuttle, robots,  Arduino, smartphones. All are the result of manufacturing.

It’s time we all realised that Manufacturing is cool. Manufacturing has always been cool, it’s just that the technology we now employ is a little sexier than the Spinning Jenny.

So next time you see someone write “Is this shiny new thing the second industrial revolution” probably best to ask whether the first one ever actually ended.


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