It was inevitable the Chris Anderson Editor in Chief of Wired would eventually write a significant piece on “the long tail of things” as he puts it, and as usual it’s a great read. As head of DIY Drones, an drone supplier for hobbyists, he has seen first hand how the manufacturing world has evolved. He designs the circuit boards on a computer and uploads it to one of a multitude of possible manufacturers, many of which can be found on Alibaba, and can get extremely small runs made — down to 1 at a time. This allows him to experiment and hold very little inventory.
That is one piece of the story: the democratization of access to industrial grade manufacturing at scales available to amateurs and hobbyists (democratized innovation). Part two is extending the actual design of products to customers (mass customization and crowdsourcing). Somewhat along the lines of the Open Source Car project, which I wrote about previously, Local Motors sought to solicit ideas and designs from members (of which they have 5,000). They are producing a pretty wicked looking car designed by contributor Sangho Kim that will be built in distributed building centers. Similar to the ubiquitous Threadless, which inspired Local Motors to some extent, users submit designs and it is voted up until a car reaches a certain popularity after which it will be produced in limited runs. This fills in the market with specialized, small run cars and meet needs that would not be possible with the large auto firms.
Okay, so you have the ability to order custom made parts from manufacturers in small quantities, companies are successfully building products based on user submitted designs and voting, and now, if these sources are still not enough to fulfill your desires, enter 3D fabs and 2D cutters (personal manufacturing). About which I have written plenty about. An image which seems to be appropriate is that filling a inverted pyramid: the top can be filled in with mass production and satisfies most people, the middle to lower regions can be filled by user submitted, smaller run manufacturing, and the very bottom, the highly specialized cracks are filled in by the fabbers and totally custom building.
“Thus the new industrial organizational model. It’s built around small pieces, loosely joined. Companies are small, virtual, and informal. Most participants are not employees. They form and re-form on the fly, driven by ability and need rather than affiliation and obligation. It doesn’t matter who the best people work for; if the project is interesting enough, the best people will find it.”
Each step of conceiving, designing, prototyping, manufacturing, and selling are within reach of just about anyone with a surprisingly small amount of capital. Couple that with bringing in the crowd at any point to help fund or vet ideas and the current situation becomes that much more interesting.