Feature Story

Network Trailblazer: A Conversation With Chris Anderson, Co-Founder & CEO of 3D Robotics and Former Wired Magazine Editor

by Amy Cortese

Amy Cortese talks to Chris Anderson about how the maker movement and digital manufacturing are ushering in a new industrial revolution.

As editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine for most of the 21st century, Chris Anderson has had a front row seat to the technological changes that continue to transform our world. He's explored some of these changes in his books, The Long Tail, about the rise of niche markets, and Free, about the seemingly counter-intuitive strategy of giving away goods and services for free.  His latest, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, is perhaps his most meaty topic yet.

The premise: that we are on the verge of a new industrial revolution brought about by inexpensive, easy to use design software and, more importantly, desktop 3D printers and "factories in the cloud" that can turn anyone with an idea into a manufacturer. And that has major implications for the global economy. Amy Cortese caught up with Anderson in his ‘factory' in Berkeley, CA.

Amy Cortese: Your new book is called Makers. What is a maker?

Chris Anderson: I think of it as the web generation meets the real world. It's what happens when everything—the current creative innovation explosion driven by the personal computer and the Internet—comes to manufacturing. It now extends to physical things, tinkering, entrepreneurship, innovation and ultimately entire new industries.

AC: A lot of this new age tinkering is taking place in "makerspaces" – collaborative workshops that people can join. How many of these are there?

CA: I don't know. We have no crisp definition:  What is a makerspace? What is a hackerspace? What is a style lab? What is a tech shop? So no one really has a comprehensive list, but it's thousands worldwide.

AC: The tagline of the book is "The New Industrial Revolution." In your telling, the first industrial revolution was enabled by machine power. Then we had the digital revolution, where computers and the Internet enabled desktop publishing, and suddenly everyone could create and publish content with the click of a button. With the latest wave of technology, we can now all be manufacturers. Tell me about this new industrial revolution and what's driving it. 

CA:  The first revolution basically replaced muscle power with machine power, and that created modernity eventually. We increased our standard of living and doubled our life span.

The second industrial revolution was largely the digital revolution. The point here is not the invention of the computer, but the democratization of it. Not the mainframe but rather the personal computer, and not just the personal computer but the personal computer that was connected via the Internet. And that unleashed two things: it replaced brainpower with machine power, which allowed us to do more interesting things, and the second thing is it created a new social model for getting things done. The old social model was a company, and the new social model was called the Internet. And we learned together how to share and work together and otherwise create ways to invent that don't necessarily involve employment, money or credentials. We've seen that over the last 20 years and that's the world we know and love online.

The third industrial revolution I would argue started about five years ago. When Dale Dougherty (of Maker Media) coined the term "maker" around 2005, I think he observed that tinkerers were starting to work together and share. The tinkering world, which had always been solitary—you know, in your workshop in your basement kind of thing—was starting to move online and benefit from these combinatorial effects that happen when people work together. Later on, these new tools started emerging that became the symbols of the maker movement: the 3D printer, the laser cutter, machine readable scanners, CAD software that was easy to use, and ultimately what we call "cloud manufacturing."

So I think Dale recognized that the web had come to tinkering. And then a series of tools started emerging that took it from an idea to an industry.  I would say today where we're at is that the tools are now mature enough and 3D is cheap and reliable enough that they're starting to [lay the foundation for a new wave of innovation].  And the Kickstarter phenomena [is funding] actual companies that may lead industries. A new generation is emerging that is working as makers and building companies.

I'm an example. I came out of the maker movement and here I am competing in the aerospace industry. We didn't know anything about this stuff—we were completely ignorant, untrained, uncredentialed and yet here we are. We run two big factories, a multi-million dollar company, advanced manufacturing equipment…. and we still basically find stuff on the Internet and learn how to use it. The barriers to entry have fallen so low that people can do things without the normal professional training, the normal funding. Factories—whether desktop, cloud or a physical factory—are now something that anyone can do.

AC: Your company is also a great example of open source, which is driving a lot of this by harnessing the collective brainpower and expertise of a community to further bring down the cost of bringing something to market, right?

CA: Yeah. We stand on the shoulders of giants there. We're an open source software and open source hardware company. We're building on the model pioneered by projects like Linux and Apache and Firefox—that model was tried and true in software—and then building on models pioneered by Arduino, RepRap and others in hardware. We're basically building a modern manufacturing company along web lines. So we kind of default to community-led open innovation. We quickly learned that it works better in some ways than in does in others – our software model works brilliantly; the hardware model has worked less brilliantly. 

AC: 3D printers are cool, but more or less limited to prototyping now, right? That's where these "factories in the cloud," as you call them, come in, where someone with just an idea can tap into the design and manufacturing expertise of someone as far away as China.

CA: Let's say you design a really clever baby-feeding spoon. You design it in CAD and you 3D print it and you love it.  Then you say, I'm going to kickstart it. And it's a big success. Say you get 100,000 people who want it. Now what? The simple answer is, you're not going to 3D print that. So you need to go from one manufacturing technology, 3D printing, to another, probably injection molding in this case. That used to be a hard process: you'd have to fly to China, work with a designer, etc. Today what you do is you go to a web site like Alibaba, and you would upload that same file that you used to 3D print it, and they would turn that into the inverse, rather than the object itself, and that becomes a model for the mold. Then they would CNC [computer numerical control machine] out the mold, probably in aluminum, and they give you a price – maybe 30 cents apiece. Then it's like, do you want a big box of them or do you want it drop shipped directly to your customer?  I'm simplifying a little bit, but this is essentially something you can do from a laptop.   You don't own the factory, you didn't make the mold, you don't have to know anything about how CNC works, you don't have to do any injection molding yourself, you don't have to source the plastic—it's just all out there!

AC: One of the things that's so cool about the digital manufacturing revolution is that it's boiling down these industrial processes down to a button on your computer screen. As you've said, "we've turned the global industrial revolution model into a drop down menu"

CA: I'm slightly exaggerating when I say that. I think we're very close to that in media. We really have turned the essence of media into a button or a drop down. But I'm sort of blurring the subtleties and complexities of volume manufacturing when I say the entire process is a drop down menu. But certainly enough of the process is a drop down menu that is not intimidating and not expensive. 

AC: It's really turning back the tide of globalization and offshoring, isn't it? We're shortening supply chains. What impact will this have on globalization?

CA: I think it has less to do with the maker movement per se than the underlying technologies that drive it, the second wave of automation [based on flexible, general purpose robotics]. As we speak [from his office n Berkeley, Calif.], I'm standing next to a robotic pod that is making metal furniture. It's what's called a lights-out facility, meaning it operates without people, and that's how you make furniture in Berkeley. What I love about it, aside from the fact that it's very cool to watch, is that the furniture designer is 10 feet away. It's a 10-foot supply chain. They can turn around designs in an hour. During Chinese New Year, the world shuts down for four weeks.  That's not the case here. There's very little wait.  If there's a problem with the design, they fix it right away. That's what short supply chains give you. So when I look at this factory here, we all buy robots for the same price. How would it be any different if it were in China? And the answer is it would be more expensive, not because of labor but because of all the intrinsic costs of long supply chains.

So that was an epiphany. Our own factories are five minutes across the border from one another in Tijuana and San Diego.  The first thousand years were about labor arbitrage—about going to cheaper and cheaper labor, it was essentially about money. Money drove the first thousand years of globalization. Automation, and robotics in particular, means that it's time that's going to drive the next era of globalization.

AC: So does that mean you are bullish on the American economy and manufacturing?

CA: Yes, with a couple caveats. First of all, I'd say North America, seeing that we're part of the maquiladora (Mexico's thriving manufacturing free trade zone). Second, I think it's worth noting that we don't create as many jobs as we lost over the years with the outflow of offshoring. I like to think that the jobs we do create are better, more value-added jobs. I think we're also creating platforms that allow other companies to form. I have no idea what this means for employment in America for the long term.  I do now that we're seeing a demonstrable return of manufacturing in the US. I also know that the manufacturing today looks different—more robotics, more high tech, more design-led and fewer jobs per unit.  I do know that's a good thing. What I don't know is what's going to create the next million jobs. Did the Internet create a million jobs? It destroyed some jobs and created others. How many jobs did it create? How do we measure that? And I feel the same way about manufacturing—I'm not even quite sure what manufacturing is anymore. If we're talking about cloud manufacturing, does it matter where the factory is? If we're talking about design, is that part of manufacturing or separate? Where is the value added? 

Here in the Bay Area we're building a new bridge - it's fabricated in China but the bridge is built here. So there's this big billboard complaining that the bridge is made from steel made in China. And I just don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I don't know where the value lies. Do we want to be building more steel plants in America? Or do we want to be building more things with steel?  These are all sort of pop questions about the shape of 21st Century economy, but what I do know is that there are now alternatives to making things in China. We can make things here, and the reasons have to do with speed and innovation, and we're seeing a transition.


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