Tyee Books

Open-Source Tech: A New Industrial Revolution?

These days, workers of the world unite online to create the latest genius goods.

By Crawford Kilian 23 Aug 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Within a month, Formlab raised $3-million on Kickstarter to create its new Form 1 3D printer. Photo: Kickstarter.

Almost a quarter-century ago, I started teaching in a program designed to prepare students for jobs that didn't exist -- yet.

Using their own Macs and working in a lab equipped with laser printers and projectors, the students (and teachers) explored the potential in those little beige boxes: graphics, sound, communication via bulletin boards. "Interactive" stopped being a buzzword and became a way of learning -- education as conversation.

We could all see something big was emerging. The idea of "multimedia" went through several iterations before Tim Berners-Lee gave us the web and transformed the world. We ran with it.

In those distant days I could see that a new kind of power was devolving onto individuals: The power to create, design, and publish at almost no cost. You didn't need millions of dollars and a huge building with printing presses in the basement just to put out a newspaper. This new medium had its own limitations and requirements, but for those willing to learn, anything was possible.

One of the new medium's drawbacks, as my teaching colleagues astutely saw, was that it required more work: You couldn't expect others to do your typing, layout, or duplication. Nevertheless, they too were drawn into the vortex of the desktop-publishing revolution and the online-education boom that followed.

The revolution, once the interest of a few early-adopter profs and students, is now the status quo. We used to worry that students without their own computers would be at a disadvantage; now we demand they shut their damn laptops, turn off their damn smartphones, and just listen.

That revolution was in information handling. It has brought not only blogs and Twitter, but a near-death experience for many newspapers and book publishers. A similar revolution now seems to be underway in manufacturing.

For decades we've watched the westward migration of manufacturing, clear across the Pacific to the cheap labour in Asian factories. As incomes stagnated in North America, we needed those cheap Chinese goods because we couldn't afford much that was made at home.

For decades, manufacturing for mass markets had boosted our economy, strengthened workers and their unions, and paid for social programs. More recently, the programs came under attack and the new generation of workers was flipping burgers. And it all seemed inevitable under the capital-intensive corporate system that had dominated since before Henry Ford.

Meet the Makers

Now, Chris Anderson argues, a new industrial model has arisen and a new kind of manufacturing is emerging that exploits niche markets, not mass markets, and draws its startup capital from its future customers. Like most folks in the 1980s and '90s who ignored the personal computer, most of us are unaware of a new kind of do-it-yourself, crowdsourced manufacturing run by people Anderson calls "Makers."

The Internet creates communities of interest about every conceivable subject, and Anderson's Makers find their supporters online. In his own case, he was an editor at Wired with an interest in remote-controlled model planes. He realized others had great ideas for designing and building them, using parts that were either off-the-shelf or cheaply made by 3D printers. Today he runs his own firm, 3D Robotics, building unmanned aircraft.

Like open-source software, his technology is open-source too, and anyone who can improve on it is welcome to. His development community is worldwide and so is his market.

3D Robotics is far from being the only such firm. Another company, Local Motors, uses crowdsourcing to design new automobiles with the help of "more than 30,000 designers, fabricators, engineers and enthusiasts from around the world." The results aren't cheap: A Local Motors Rally Fighter costs $99,000 -- and buyers must build their own cars, under skilled supervision, from the wheels up.

No, it's not a mass market, but that's Anderson's point: the new industrial revolution can find niche markets online and deliver tailored goods -- anywhere.

Strikingly, many such firms support one another, each using open-source technology to create specialized tools and parts for others' products. And they don't need to borrow from banks or beg from venture capitalists. That would only launch them into business under a massive burden of debt and unsold inventory.

Instead, says Anderson, new entrepreneurs with good ideas are going online to sites like Kickstarter, where they make their pitch and get 30 days to raise the money they need. If they can't get it by the deadline, the idea probably wouldn't have sold anyway. And in many cases, their projects are oversubscribed, meaning they have thousands of pre-sold customers.

Significantly, one of Kickstarter's most successful startups was Formlabs' new Form 1 3D printer. Last September they asked for $100,000; 30 days later they had almost $3 million, with an instant market for their printers plus a body of supporters willing to cough up $29 bucks for a Form 1 t-shirt.

Another crowdsourced product was the Pebble, an e-paper watch that made over $10 million on a $1-million appeal.

Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sources like IndieGoGo don't fund only gadgets; they support movies, comics, and music projects. (The Tyee itself uses a form of crowdfunding with its Builder program and reader-directed journalism projects.)

In this new industrial revolution, a community of interest forms around the design or production of some new item. Many contribute their ideas and expertise not for pay but for love and fun (and maybe a t-shirt). A few actually make money in return for building and shipping the item, but they welcome competition.

Workers of the world unite online

Where old-fashioned "cubicle-farm" companies must recruit a workforce within commuting distance of a physical plant, the new industries draw on talent worldwide. Anderson mentions a young Chinese man in Beijing who improved the code for one of his drones; instead of "pirating" the drone, he became part of the team. The CEO of 3D Robotics, Anderson tells us, started as a 19-year-old high school grad from Tijuana who had some great ideas.

"We minimize transaction costs with technology, not proximity," says Anderson. "A social network is our common roof. Skype is the 'next cubicle.' Our shared purpose is really shared, not dictated."

The Makers are finding their markets online; where they build their products is more likely to be at home than in China or Thailand. Robot technology makes production costs essentially the same, so they might as well make them at home.

Not all Makers will succeed, or deserve to. The Osborne and Apricot computers are fading memories. Quadcopter drones and Pebble watches will someday be nostalgia items. But the basic tectonic shift that Anderson describes does appear to be happening, with implications we probably foresee no better than we expected the fall of the newspapers.

Who's a worker? And what's 'work'?

Mass-production industries also produced masses of workers, who as individuals could be brutally exploited until they formed unions. But the new industrial model redefines not only the worker, but "work" itself as a kind of directed play, fun that may or not be monetized. What will happen to old-model workers, who still have bills to pay, under the new regime? Will they need to be amateur designers and engineers just to stay in the game?

For that matter, what if some Makers morph into Teachers, creating their own online education communities? Major schools like MIT are already giving away their courses to anyone who wants them.

Imagine a cadre of educators living in Vancouver, Madrid, Brisbane, and Kuala Lumpur who crowdfund an elementary school whose pupils live all over the world, and who will graduate to personally tailored high school and university programs with breathtaking ways of learning still more. Could routine schools compete?

No doubt they could -- but only by individualizing their education programs the way Local Motors individualizes its customers' cars. If the public schools recognize that good teaching is done as much for love as for money, and they provide both, they should be able to give the online education system a run for its crowdfunded money.  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech

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