Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


In response to my last post on manufacturer hackspaces, Phil Jones (founder of the Future Manufacturing meetup group) left a comment mentioning “James Hardiman’s project to build 50 fablabs“. That project was inspired both by MIT and by the various FabLabs springing up in Holland: James notes that the first UK Fab Lab has arrived in Manchester, called (somewhat unsurprisingly) Fab Lab Manchester, with two more (one in Cambridge, one in Brighton) threatening to get started any minute.

Perhaps I should be pleased by all this, but just as with London Hackspace, this all seems to me to fall well short of the mark. Only people who haven’t actually worked in manufacturing would think that buying a 3d printer and a vinyl cutter would be sufficient investment to push an entire community into a making frame of mind. Prototyping for looks falls well short of prototyping for function or for mass production: additive mass manufacturing is still so far from a reality that I usually find it embarrassing when I see it in someone else’s business plan or pitch. A serious attempt at seeding manufacturing would have proper kit for startups who are driven to change the world, one good idea at a time: an EOS direct metal laser-sintering system, a 3-axis computer controlled mill, a decent laser cutter, and so forth.

But then again, almost nobody in the UK seems to have any sense of how this would work, or why it would be even remotely necessary For many manufacturing hopefuls (particularly those on or just out of design degrees that seem to be Sociology accessorized with a bit of Rhino3d product design module, though you’re not supposed to say that), the grimy side of physically making things is frequently perceived to be nothing more than a ‘design plus’ activity. For once you’ve designed yourself a sleek-looking Jonny Ives-style 3d model of your hypergadget, you lob it over the partition and the rest is easy… errrr, isn’t it?

Actually no, not even close: the gulf between the (mostly Western) turtleneck Mac-design-house mindset and the (mostly Far Eastern) mass production world has arguably never been wider. There are now a billion spectator seats at the manufacturing table for wannabe makers who can sense the global hunger for tools and gadgets: but making one of those into a success is, if anything, harder than ever right now. I don’t even want to speculate on how dwindlingly few people in the UK have a sufficiently good grasp of conceptual design, mechanical design, electronic design, interface design and software design to doggedly push a real project right through from start to finish, and who also ‘get’ customer development enough to build something that people will buy.

Of course, I appreciate that someday we may possibly all have desktop 3d replicators able to summon the world’s digital designs to our hands, one petulant (and probably virtual) mouseclick at a time: I’ve met plenty of people who give the impression of living off the whole sci-fi high of that notion. But for now, I’m sorry to have to say that it’s just nonsense.

This is because the practical limitations of 3d printing are many and varied, all the while the whole process of proper injection moulded parts is rapidly improving. Yes, that’s right: hardly anybody realizes that even though 3d printing is getting better all the time, injection moulding is also continuously improving and reinventing itself too. Going all ‘Wired’ by focusing on the eventual promise of 3d printing will likely cause you to miss out on the real manufacturing revolutions that are happening right here, right now.

So… who should back the UK’s manufacturer hackspaces? I previously proposed the Technology Strategy Board, but OpenCoffee-er Brian Milnes also suggested the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (in fact, they both operate from the same building in Swindon). All the same, I think there’s a strong (and perhaps slightly surprising) case to be made that the best source of all would be NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

I’ll try to explain. Possibly the biggest argument against any kind of investment in manufacturing is simply that for most people – and I’d certainly include the majority of business angels in this category – building things is just too prosaic a thing to get particularly interested about. But for me, I see manufactured objects as a kind of beautiful miniaturized IP symphony: the customer development, the idea, the form factor, the design, the mouldings, the machines, the electronics, the sensors, the interface, the technology, the packaging, the assembly, the testing, the conformance, the software, the hacking, the platform, the recycling… all of it.

Where you see gadget, I see process. Moreover, where you see prose, I see poetry: for the UK will continue to have no manufacturing all the while it has lost its collective sense of the poetry of production. The ignominious application of production line metaphors to (the actually very creative) industrial life has helped alienate people from the process of making: whereas Lean Manufacturing instead helps to reconnect workers with the project as a whole, by seeing waste as a thing that erodes value, and that corrodes the relationship between customer and producer by making it unnecessarily fragile and contingent.

And this is where I think NESTA comes in. There is a crazy, valuable, wonderful space opening up here for a manufacturing hackspace with a direct remit not just to connect with (and empower) startups with a drive to build, but also to try to piece together and tell the story of manufacturing as it lives in the minds of modern makers. Yet this goes way beyond the whole tokenistic artist-in-residence type of conceit: for if we cannot as a society engage with the manufacturing dreamworld – for what are products but our collective dreams made solid? – then we will end up designing our FabLabs merely to satiate superficial toytown needs, to scratch parochial mercantilistic itches better ignored.

Ultimately, the future history of manufacturing that people such as I are trying to write is a far more nuanced thing than anyone seems to realize: it’s a matter neither of high-value goods vs low-value goods, nor of on-shore vs off-shore vs late assembly, nor even of in-house vs out-house, but one of doing vs not doing. That is, the world does not need more software houses: software is far too often a way of avoiding doing useful work, of sidelining bright people. Rather, the world needs more people doing things, building physical things, and merging hardware and software in useful and unexpected ways. Isn’t it true that apps are arguably the least interesting type of Sampo, that legendary Finnish “magical artefact… that brought good fortune to its holder“?

To my mind, the most subversive act of all is designing and building something new, for that serves to shift the balance of that-which-is-immediately-physical-possible: as useful day-to-day technology moves from spectacles to medicines to lifts to robots to exoskeletons, the sum of our parts becomes more than mere bodies. Yet we have become so accustomed to seeing novelty in apps as our collective metric for ‘interestingness’ that we often overlook this beautifully simple world of useful, empowering objects. Who, now, is looking to curate these machines of modern production, to bring out the subversive story of modern man as maker?

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Comments on: "Aiming (much) higher than Hackspaces and FabLabs…" (11)

  1. I’m inclined to agree — the poetry of production, the subversive act of building new something new — even if the premise of the post seems riddled with nostalgia to put it very positively. FabLabs and Hackspaces are to manufacturing what grounded theory was to social science and punk to culture. I think that there is no turning back to manufacturing as we knew it if there is to be a future for manufacturing. Maybe there is still a place for contemporary Shakesperean sonnets and Browning style dramatic monologues. If manufacturing wants to be poetry today, if the subversive act of making should make any difference, it is experimentation and contemporary forms of manufacturing that look most promising to me. And that’s not a message to artist, that’s a message to manufacturers — and to product users.

    • Peter: Perhaps the problem here is that I get quite the opposite vibe off FabLabs and Hackspaces, insofar as they seem so firmly rooted inside mainstream culture as to be close to useless: more New Romantic than Punk. Moreover, I don’t see how the desire to make physical things is in any way “nostalgic”: I’m kicking back against apps not because I want a ticket back to the Industrial Revolution, but because I feel like I’ve gone past them – manufacturing is so much more than that. Perhaps it’s not my best ever post 🙂 , but I’m at least trying to express something!

    • Peter: re-reading my reply, I should make it entirely clear that I like (and recommend) Hackspaces and FabLabs and heartily wish them fast growth, wider community participation and success in their aims. My only issue is that I don’t think they go nearly far enough to transform what has become a very superficial culture of digital tinkering into a substantial culture of physical making. Having even one flagship manufacturer makespace to help entrereneurs and investors see the difference between the two would be an excellent start, and my personal preference would be to build that out from an existing hackspace (say, London Hackspace, which I’m happy to endorse as a great place). I’m a revolutionary, not a retrolutionary! 😉

  2. You’re definitely describing what we’d love to do with London Hackspace, however hackerspaces are first and foremost community projects. As a non-profit, London Hackspace has to rely on its members for funding, and that (combined with the insane property prices in London) currently stops us from getting big sexy fabrication equipment.

    NESTA are only really interested taking equity in for-profit entities so, although they’re quite friendly to us, they aren’t any financial help.

    Fablabs are great, and I’d personally love to have access to some serious fabrication kit in London, but what makes hackerspaces great places is the community around them, which fablabs don’t tend to have.

    • Russ: thanks for dropping by! I’m kind of split down the middle here: the idealistic half of me wants Hackspaces and Fablabs to enable manufacturing, but the other (more practical) half just doesn’t see how it can happen. Like an old Punch motoring joke, “I wouldn’t advise starting from here”. 😐 All the same, may I ask you if London Hackspace has ever tried finding local digital artists to make a collaborative 3d making proposal to NESTA itself (not NESTA Ventures)? Perhaps that might be a better way of presenting the London Hackspace community!

  3. Makespace (currently getting set up in Cambridge) won’t be just a fablab. We absolutely want to support more hardcore manufacturing kit – although the speed at which we can acquire an EOS direct metal laser-sintering system or a 3-axis computer controlled mill will be dependent on how practical our business model is in reality, and/or what other funds we can raise. We intentionally want to support small businesses as well as education and hobbyists, and we’ll do everything we can to meet their needs.

    We’re also a non profit; this seemed the right model when we got started over a year ago (and with property in Cambridge being brutal, we’re only just finalising our lease) but maybe we’ll look at switching to another model if that looks better. If we feel we can raise more useful funds as a social enterprise, then we may well switch…

    • Hi Laura,

      I’m always delighted to hear about any initiative that aims to get more people involved in building / hacking physical things. Yet if the net result is no more than kids 3d printing avatars to perch on monitors, it will have achieved precisely nothing of value.

      The problem is that the culture of building is absent. Of the many entrepreneurs and startups I’ve met over the last few years, I have to say very few show any clear sign of wanting to build anything. For all the Coalition and UKTI rhetoric about Advanced Manufacturing, physicality remains horrendously out of fashion. All of which makes 3d printing seem to me to be swimming weakly against a one-way tide of indifference.

      It’s entirely true, then, that almost nobody sees the world of making how I see it. But I’m often about 7 years early to the party (for example, I invented gamification 7 years before it pinged on the cultural radar), so perhaps it’ll take that long for widespread 3d printing to change the way people feel about making things.

      I suspect the really big change in attitude will come from people engaging with the idea of physical production via the arts. Right now 3d printing is all too technical and dry, too technological: so perhaps my provocation to you comes down to how you can make artists engage with your makespace. What can they build? What can they hack? You may have specced it out to empower builders, but have you also specced it out to inspire artists? Have you tried to engage with Cambridge creative communities?

      Cheers, ….Nick….

  4. […] Aiming (much) higher than Hackspaces and FabLabs… « Funding Startups (& other impos… "Where you see gadget, I see process. Moreover, where you see prose, I see poetry: for the UK will continue to have no manufacturing all the while it has lost its collective sense of the poetry of production. The ignominious application of production line metaphors to (the actually very creative) industrial life has helped alienate people from the process of making: whereas Lean Manufacturing instead helps to reconnect workers with the project as a whole, by seeing waste as a thing that erodes value, and that corrodes the relationship between customer and producer by making it unnecessarily fragile and contingent." There's lots to recommend in this piece. I'm not sure I agree about software, even ignoring my vested interested and perspective, but there's so much else of value in here. I think this paragraph spoke most to me, though. (tags: manufacturing design engineering uk poetry ) […]

  5. Hi Nick,

    Just stumbled on to your very well stated post (very late to the game). Really enjoyed it!

    Being immersed in the “maker”/digital-fab/local-fab movement in the US, I frequently find myself making the argument, “… yes, 3D printers are cool, but if you want to make real stuff, from real materials, in real time, today — then subtractive 3D fab is the way to go.” Subtractive just does not seem to have the same media cachet at the proverbial “Replicator”.

    There actually are a number of hacker spaces in the US that offer much more in the way of being able to produce things — many variations on the commercial TechShop ooperation that is also becoming very popular with people who envision creating products.

    And we have introduced http://www.100kGarages.com as a way to help make this happen locally for those doing real digital fabrication as individuals or small manufacturing operations.

    Ted Hall, ShopBot Tools

  6. […] Aiming (much) higher than Hackspaces and FabLabs… « Funding Startups (& other impossibilities… Of course, I appreciate that someday we may possibly all have desktop 3d replicators able to summon the world’s digital designs to our hands, one petulant (and probably virtual) mouseclick at a time: I’ve met plenty of people who give the impression of living off the whole sci-fi high of that notion. But for now, I’m sorry to have to say that it’s just nonsense . This is because the practical limitations of 3d printing are many and varied, all the while the whole process of proper injection moulded parts is rapidly improving. Yes, that’s right: hardly anybody realizes that even though 3d printing is getting better all the time, injection moulding is also continuously improving and reinventing itself too . […]

  7. […] James Hardiman, and I’m passionate about how Making helps us to re-discover who we really are. Aiming (much) higher than Hackspaces and FabLabs… | Funding Startups (& other impossibilities) In response to my last post on manufacturer hackspaces, Phil Jones (founder of the Future […]

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