Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

  • Published

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson. Crown Business, 2012, 272 pp.

The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world. This book is about the next ten years.

With that remark, readers are granted a view of the future—one with far-reaching implications for the business world as well as national security. This is an outstanding primer for those new to the domain of 3-D printing and provides a significant foundational contribution to the growing body of literature on this developing technology. The author, Chris Anderson—former editor for Wired Magazine and the Economist, now current chief executive officer of 3DRobotics—has been repeatedly recognized for his work in the areas of technology and business. He was most recently recognized as one of Time Magazine's "Tech 40: The 40 Most Influential Minds in Technology for 2013" and one of Foreign Policy Magazine's "Top 100 Global Thinkers for 2013."

Anderson takes the reader on a guided tour of the rapidly evolving world of additive manufacturing in his third New York Times Best Seller. He unabashedly asserts his enthusiasm for the Maker movement and focuses specifically on the positive potential of additive manufacturing. This is the only criticism. His narrative is detailed, clearly explains technical specifics, and provides appropriately illustrative examples throughout.

The book begins with an examination of the roots of the Maker movement, starting with a view framed by the author's personal experience and then tracing the movement as it evolves to its present status. During these travels, the transformative nature of the new industrial revolution is defined by exploring the digital do-it-yourself (DIY) culture that gave rise to the concept of additive manufacturing. The asymmetric nature of this new capability is captured in the discussion of online collaborative communities that enable rapid timelines from concept to product based on the open manufacturing model. The disruptive effects of the 3-D printed revolution are summarized with one final twist: a look at past predictions by two MIT professors who described the transformative process being witnessed today.

The real essence of the book is unveiled as the narrative translates the power of additive manufacturing to the physical world. The author rightly argues that as products are turned into digital data their potential increases. Instead of a physical item like a sprinkler head or centrifuge, you have a more powerful version of the item, a digital version with unlimited possibilities. This is an important distinction. A digital product can be shared and modified—a process termed "remixing." The ability to remix a data file allows a consumer to easily improve upon an existing idea. A background in engineering or materials science is no longer required. Existing digital designs can be shared online with those who have the expertise to assist with the desired improvements. The physical item has been transformed into a customizable article that has the power to rapidly evolve in any direction.

While not identified as a national security reading, there are significant implications captured within this technological account that deserve further examination by the defense community. Anderson's discussion of harnessing "piracy" to enable leaps, as seen in the collaboration between DIY drones and a Chinese company, demonstrates just how quickly open communities can advance existing technologies. Local Motors, a kit car company located in Massachusetts, further illustrates this effect with their use of the open-source collaborative community to design an experimental combat support vehicle for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The design was completed in weeks, with a final winning vehicle presented to Pres. Barack Obama in less than five months. As Anderson notes, most defense contractors cannot accomplish the paperwork for a project of this scale in that amount of time, let alone a completed product.

The dialogue on advanced manufacturing and digital fabrication technology examines the advantage of being able to produce unlimited builds as seen in the pioneering aerospace communities of SpaceX and Scaled Composites. The author also highlights the agility of this technology as seen in the Tesla production plant in Fremont, California. The factory features the latest in additive manufacturing paired with six degrees of freedom robotics. This combination allows the company to do "mass customization" via digital manufacturing. The big takeaway is that these systems can be reprogrammed within minutes to produce almost anything.

Perhaps the most interesting piece is the study of the growing DIY community. An examination of DIY websites like MFG.com and AliBaba.com demonstrates that anyone with a digital file can find a company to produce their idea or the equipment to create at home. For niche products, specialty additive manufacturing groups are available for consultation. Groups like DIYbio are now taking professional laboratory equipment and redesigning it to create low-cost solutions that approximate or exceed the capabilities of the original item. The most impressive examples discussed are the "DremelFuge" and OpenPCR. Dremelfuge is a 3-D printed head that sits on top of a dremel tool and functions as a makeshift centrifuge. For under $100, this design can spin tubes up to 9,000 rpms faster than professional centrifuges. OpenPCR provides consumers with a thermal cycler that allows users to auto-copy DNA for less than $600. Both designs are open source; so, they can be modified as necessary.

At the heart of this tale is the truth of additive manufacturing: that we all will be an integral part in how it will shape the future. For those interested in technological influences on national security and deterrence policy, this is a valuable chronicle. The author provides a solid foundation for the novice, parsing out technical topics, effectively arguing key points, and then using current case studies to best familiarize the reader and reinforce previous data. For the analyst, the discussions of current technology captured in examples and case studies will be the most valuable information. Makers will give readers a unique innovative perspective, framed by a powerful emerging technology and articulated in a fashion that will make them want to learn more.

Maj Jennifer Snow, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."