The internet has helped make manufacturing cool. Industry should embrace this new-found passion for making things if it wants to attract new blood and new ideas.
One of the surprising things about the rise of the internet and digital technology is how it has stimulated people’s interest in making physical things.
Websites like Pinterest and Etsy, and the huge number of how-to guides on sites like YouTube, are inspiring people to do things themselves and turn their hobbies into professional skills. Mainstream news outlets would never typically report on machine tools but they leap on stories about 3D printers.
And the hacker subculture is closely associated with the “maker movement”, where people come together to learn how to combine passions for art and design with traditional and modern fabrication techniques, to make their own products rather than relying on shop-bought ones.
By sharing knowledge and creating tools that simplify building processes, the digital revolution has helped (some) people in the West realise that making things doesn’t have to be done in Chinese factories or high-tech, closed-off facilities. Rather than cutting us off from the real world with a virtual alternative, the internet has made manufacturing cool. Sort of.
But for all the excitement about maker culture and 3D printing, I’m yet to be convinced of their ability to make substantial changes to the way most of our goods are made.
I recently asked Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of innovation agency/charity NESTA and former policy director for Tony Blair, how he thought technology would change manufacturing over the coming years.
He identified three broad trends he thought would make a difference: much greater automation, 3D printing relocating production (and jobs) back to the UK, and more emphasis on handmade goods. The first one seems like a given. But I remain much more sceptical of how much impact 3D printing will have.
Listening to manufacturers and academics working in the field, the main message on 3D printing is that it’s a tool to enable the creation of more personalised and complex products rather than something that will replace the current way we manufacture goods.
For all the fuss about the recent 3D-printed gun, it seems much more likely most gun owners would rather purchase a ready-made, high quality and relatively cheap (thanks to mass production) model than go though the hassle and expense of making their own only to find it doesn’t work as well as their old professionally fabricated model.
And while 3D printing could help create new advanced manufacturing jobs, it’s unlikely to bring back old ones from the Far East because it doesn’t provide a cheaper or easier way to make things in high volumes and further automates the fabrication process.
Then we come to the trend for handmade items. We’ve already seen how powerful the attraction for products with a personal touch can be in the likes of the Cambridge Satchel Company, which in five years has become a multi-million pound firm selling products around the world and creating manufacturing jobs here in the UK.
But these kind of items remain a relatively niche luxury (Cambridge satchels start at £94, not outrageous but certainly not affordable for most people) and certainly aren’t going to rebalance the economy on their own.
Similarly, most hard-pressed working people are unlikely to revive pre-war practices of making their own goods or buying expensive locally made ones when they have little spare time and cheap, mass-produced alternatives, however fashionable a trend it might be.
However, the rising popularity of DIY culture and the interest in 3D printing could have other implications and even benefits for the manufacturing establishment. Many of the ideas behind the maker movement are the opposite of those big companies usually follow, but that doesn’t mean the two groups have to remain completely detached.
By building closer links with the kind of maker clubs and faires that are increasingly springing up across the UK, manufacturers could encourage the development of the next generation of design and production engineers, inspire young people and create a fresh pipeline of new ideas and new employees.
Some companies, particularly in the US, are already doing this. GE holds events it calls GE Garages that give makers a chance to use and learn more heavy duty and traditional fabrication techniques while sharing their DIY ideas. Autodesk produces software specifically aimed at hobbyist designers and makers and plays a supporting role in maker faires in the US.
We can also see how maker movement ideas can feed into new businesses. The Raspberry Pi educational computer is now mass produced in a factory in Wales but it started off as a collaborative project embracing many of the ideals of the maker movement, and early participants were encouraged to make their own version before a commercial product was available.
As such, it was appropriate to see Raspberry Pi supporting Maker Faire UK, the largest such event in the UK, held in Newcastle in April. Wouldn’t it have been great to see Rolls Royce or Jaguar Land Rover involved as well?
The manufacturing industry is unlikely to be transformed by 3D printing and maker culture. But if British companies are serious about recruiting more young engineers, they could do worse than using the enthusiam for these trends to show young people how their existing passions could flow into a satisfying career.