Aiming (much) higher than Hackspaces and FabLabs…
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?