Your book is about manufacturing but you talk a lot about the importance of content and community for successful “maker” companies. Why is that?
I think Kickstarter is a perfect example of this. It’s not just about raising money, it’s also about creating a community around the products. The customers are fundamentally not just passive buyers, they have a part in the design of the product and are cheerleading from the sidelines as the team builds it.
They tend to be evangelists for it and use their own social media channels to promote it. When it comes down to it, they’re the most effective word-of-mouth engines because they felt they were part of something rather than just buying something.
The content, in that sense, [is] the updates. As the creator there’s this implicit contract that once you have pre-sold your product, you’re going to entertain. You’re going to inform your users with a stream of content for the duration of the adventure.
A lot of the maker companies you profile are based on open source technology. You say that the only intellectual property your own company protects is its trademarks. Does that mean branding is going to become more important than ever?
Basically, the old ways of protecting your products were patents, trade secrets,
copyrights, trademarks, ownership of distribution channel, sheer purchasing or selling power and things like that.
Those are all less important in this era. Those are the old industrial models of brand protection. The new brands are the ones we know so well from social media – the bottom-up brands.
The brands that are associated less with advertising and more with people’s personal experiences and how they pass their feelings about that experience through social media and beyond.
Maker products follow that same path. To the extent that “brand” represents a distinctive name, style and characteristics that are associated with your company, yourself or your community, it is more important than ever.
1) 3-D Printer: A 3-D printer and the paper printer on your desktop play similar roles. The traditional laser (or inkjet) printer is a 2-D printer: it takes pixels on a screen and turns them into dots of ink or toner on a 2-D medium, usually paper. A 3-D printer takes “geometries” onscreen (3-D objects that are created with the same sorts of tools that Hollywood uses to make CG movies) and turns them into objects that you can pick up and use. Some 3-D printers extrude molten plastic in layers to make these objects, while others use a laser to harden layers of liquid or powder resin so the product emerges from a bath of the raw material. Yet others can make objects out of any material from glass, steel, and bronze to gold, titanium, or even cake frosting. You can print a flute or you can print a meal. You can even print human organs out of living cells, by squirting a fluid with suspended stem cells onto a support matrix, much as your inkjet printer squirts ink onto paper.
You say the maker model works best for “small batch” or niche products, leading a “long tail of things.” Do you think consumer appetites for quality and customization will grow as the technology gets better?
My first book, The Long Tail, was based on what we learned from the era of unlimited choice: the digital media era. What we discovered was that we are a lot more unique than the broadcast marketplace revealed.
Extend that to a parallel movement going on in some of the hipper spots of the world toward things like artisanal food. If you’re into wine, you understood that the more sophisticated your taste gets, the more you deviate from the mainstream.
If you’re into fashion, you know that couture and boutique are in a sense niche and yet they have the most influence.
The presumption is that the maker movement now extends that long tail to physical goods that were previously constrained by the limits of mass production.
But there are limits. There are things we don’t care that much about. I’m very happy to have mainstream milk. When it comes to silverware, I’m happy to go to Ikea.
And then there are other things I care hugely about. For some people it might be clothes, for some people it might be a bike and other people it might be their furnishings. That’s where you decide to live down in the tail.
You decide, “That’s going to be something that defines me. That’s going to be something where I’m really going to exercise my new power of choice.” It’s not the end of the mainstream, it’s the end of the monopoly of the mainstream.
2) CNC Machine: While a 3-D printer uses an “additive” technology to make things (it builds them up layer by layer), a CNC (computer numerical control) router or mill can take the same file and make similar products with a “subtractive” technology, which is a fancy way of saying that it uses a drill bit to cut a product out of a block of plastic, wood, or metal. There are countless other specialty CNC machines: CNC quilters and embroidery machines, CNC sign and vinyl cutters (for silk-screening), and CNC paper and fabric cutters for crafters, to name a few. Some CNC machines are the same size of a large table and are designed to make furniture out of wood. Industrial CNC machines can be as big as a warehouse and can serve out objects as big as an airplane fuselage.
Over the last 15 years we’ve seen both the music and publishing industries disrupted by digital technology. How can current retail and manufacturing brands avoid the same fate as record companies and newspapers? Are there ways they can prepare for the “new industrial revolution”?
I think these brands are fine for a couple reasons. First of all, we’re still talking about physical goods, which could not be distributed as easily as digital products could. So one way or another you’ve got to move atoms around and there are some barriers to entry there.
Twenty years after Amazon was created only a tiny share of retail is e-commerce and the stuff that isn’t goes through traditional distribution channels. The Kickstarters of the world are great, but those products aren’t going to make it to the shelves of Walmart any time soon.
The second reason is that mass production is really good at mass production. What mass production has never been good at is niche production. These are markets of ten thousand, which is a really interesting number.
Ten thousand is too small for a Foxconn, too small for a mass production company, they just don’t operate at that scale. It’s not efficient for them, and it’s too large for the individual or even a little local manufacturing business.
And yet what we learned with long tail digital content was that ten thousand was the sweet spot. That’s where music and film established their appeal.
Ten thousand is enough to build a business on but a few of those ten thousands will be able to catapult into the mainstream to become ten millions.
3) Laser Cutter: One of the most popular of the new desktop tools is the laser cutter, which is mostly a 2-D device. It uses a powerful laser to cut a precise pattern of any complexity into sheets of whatever material you feed it, from plastics and woods to thin metal. Many CAD programs can break a 3-D object into 2-D parts so they can be fabricated with a laser cutter, and then neatly slotted together like one of those plywood dinosaur kits.
You wrote the book on “free” but conclude in your book that the maker movement is unlikely to go the same route, where people expect their stuff – like their content – to be free. What’s the difference?
They’re physical goods. The expectation with digital goods is that they were free because everyone knew the marginal costs were close to zero. Everyone knows the marginal cost of physical goods is not close to zero.
What’s easy in digital is adoption because barriers to entry are so low. What’s hard is making money. It’s the inverse with physical stuff. What’s hard is physical adoption, what’s easy is making money.
4) 3-D Scanner: This device, which can be as small as a breadbox, allows you to do “reality capture.” Rather than having to draw an object from scratch, you can put an existing object in the scanner. It uses lasers or other light sources and a camera to image the object from all sides, and then turns it into a 3-D image made up of tens or hundreds of thousands of polygons, just like a video-game character or CG movie set. The software can simplify it and let you modify any part you want. A common first experiment is to scan your head, then exaggerate your features and 3-D print a bobble-head of yourself.
One thing you don’t mention in the book is the implications of “the long tail of things” on the environment. On one hand, we may have shorter supply chains. On the other, more stuff. Is that really a good thing?
In general, shorter supply chains are more sustainable. But I think you have to be realistic about shorter supply chains. It’s one thing if you’re assembling locally but all your components are shipped around the world.
Are we just going to get more stuff? Traditionally that’s not been the model. It’s not that we buy more stuff or make more stuff, it’s that we make maybe the same or less but we value it more.
You pay more for it but you use it, you love it, you keep it and you treasure it. You treat it less as a disposable commodity and more as an heirloom or something that defines you.
The four excerpts above are from the book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. Copyright 2012 by Chris Anderson. Published by arrangement with Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc.
In his own words
Chris Anderson on his transition from editor-in-chief of Wired to CEO of 3D Robotics: