The Information Age was built by amateurs.
For all of the wonder and power that the Internet era has brought us, it's important to remember that the technological progress that has defined the 21st century has been the product of unconnected newcomers chasing an idea in isolation.
Free from the constraints of corporate development initiatives and strategic plans, working in dorm rooms and garages around the world, the hackers, coders and curious dabblers have created a vast digital world that has left our lives, our businesses and our industries unrecognizable to their 20th century forms.
The Internet empowered individuals, armed with nothing but an idea and a computer, to disrupt the world.
Now, however, that disruption has taken on a new form.
"The past 10 years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent and work together on the Web," writes Chris Anderson in his 2012 industry-defining book, "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution."
"The next 10 years," he adds, "will be about applying those lessons to the real world."
The Maker Movement
A growing army of "makers" -- high-tech DIY enthusiasts, crafters and builders, cooks and hackers -- filled with the same energy and creativity as the early Internet developers, have begun doing just that.
The maker movement, popping up in web communities, Maker Fairs and makerspaces around the world, is producing what seems like a constant barrage of connected gadgets and gizmos, automation devices, robots and drones. It is pushing into the mainstream at a breakneck pace, running circles around the slow and careful pace of established R&D enterprises.
Just as the Internet allowed Information Age pioneers to bring us all of our "digital stuff," as Anderson calls it -- Google and Facebook, the Internet of Things and big data -- new tools like 3-D printers, laser cutters and open-source hardware have empowered a generation of makers to bring us "physical stuff" from, once again, garages and dorm rooms into our everyday lives.
The result, Anderson predicts, is a whole new reign of industrial power.
"The idea of a 'factory' is, in a word, changing," he writes. "Would-be entrepreneurs and inventors are no longer at the mercy of large companies to manufacture their ideas… The days of belching smoke and steel pistons the size of boxcars are gone. Small-scale enterprises can thrive in the new world."
But this doesn't necessarily mean the end of the corporate manufacturing enterprises. At least not if they get on board.
To maintain their dominance in the world, large-scale manufacturers need to harness the power and energy of the maker movement. They need to shift away from those old, careful models that go inevitably with mass-production and tap into the rapid-fire, low-volume collaboration of the makers.
But that's no easy trick.
Means of Production
However promising the maker model may be, there remains a significant disconnect both in terms of capital and skillsets between makers and manufacturers.
Unlike Internet endeavors, which contain practically no barrier to entry, manufacturing -- even in low volume -- is an extremely expensive and extremely complicated venture. And while the makers may hold the recipe for the products of the future, the manufacturers still own both the means of producing them and the knowledge required to make them work.
This disconnect is a critical concern to Reza Kazerounian, senior vice president and general manager of Atmel's microcontroller group.
Teamed with open-source electronics platform producer, Arduino, Atmel (IW 500/468) supplies the hardware backbone that has become essential to the maker community. Looking around at the IOT gadgets, drones and connected devices coming out of the movement, it's safe to assume that nearly all of them began here.
"These platforms are enabling the maker community to become more powerful in terms of the type of solutions and features that they are implementing," Kazerounian explains. "My view is that this movement will continue to increase."
That means, he says, that the number of solutions coming out of the maker community will increase, as well as the complexity of those solutions. Along with that comes a strong and growing desire to industrialize those solutions.
That creates a problem for the makers.
"The biggest issue that we see in this future is how to get these ideas industrialized," Kazerounian says.
Industrialization, he explains, isn't easy.
"If an idea wants to be produced, that means considerations have to be given to manufacturing yield -- things like temperature variance, voltage variance, different environments the component has to work under, etc."
Basically, he argues, a great deal of engineering work has to be done in order to industrialize any solution. That knowledge, however, is far outside the world of the makers.
So here we have the divide: one side of the puzzle possesses the creativity and resourcefulness to design tomorrow's technology, and the other side possesses the knowledge and tools to produce them.
If either side wants to survive, connections must be made, Kazerounian argues.
"We need to create links between makers and manufacturing that will enable an idea to go through those gates of industrialization," he says. "The challenge for us is how to automate that process in order to better tap into the maker community's ideas."
To solve it, he imagines an online platform that at once helps validate and industrialize ideas -- a sort of virtual meeting ground for the two sides. Match that with a physical production site, and a solution might be in reach.
That's a daunting task, of course, but Kazerounian insists that it is one already well underway.
"This model will create new revenue streams for companies like us or anybody else that does it," he says. "So of course it will be solved; it's only a matter of time."
The New Manufacturing Model
On the University of Louisville's Belknap Campus in Louisville, Ky., an old storage building has just been transformed into what could be the first step toward this new model.
The 43,000-square-foot facility is crammed full of 3-D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines and enough software to design the next Martian explorer. But the designers milling inside aren't aiming for space. They're aiming for your kitchen.
The building is home to GE Appliance's new FirstBuild micro-factory -- one part makerspace, one part low-volume manufacturing facility and one part retail store, where local makers can design, prototype, manufacture and, eventually, sell kitchen gadgetry of the future.
Paragon: FirstBuild in Action
One apparent early success story coming out of FirstBuild is the Paragon Induction Cooktop, which was featured in the GE Appliances display at the International Home and Housewares Show in January.
Dreamed up by the FirstBuild global online community, the Bluetooth-enabled probe and cooktop combo is designed to precisely monitor and control water temperature for "sous vide" cooking, which promises to be a big hit for professional chefs when it goes into full production later this year.
Also, keeping with FirstBuild's non-exclusive licensing standard, a month after this preview, the Paragon team was able to add a standalone model for home cooks on the Indigogo crowdfunding site.
Though the team only set a collection goal of $50,000 for the campaign, at the time of publication Paragon had collected $269,504 with four days still left in the project.
Paragon: FirstBuild in Action One apparent early success s tory coming out of FirstBuild is the Paragon Induction Cooktop, which was featured in the GE Appliances display at the International Home and Housewares Show in January. Dreamed up by the FirstBuild global online community, the Bluetooth-enabled probe and cooktop combo is designed to precisely monitor and control water temperature for "sous vide" cooking, which promises to be a big hit for professional chefs when it goes into full production later this year. Also, keeping with FirstBuild's non-exclusive licensing standard, a month after this preview, the Paragon team was able to add a standalone model for home cooks on the Indigogo crowdfunding site. Though the team only set a collection goal of $50,000 for the campaign, at the time of publication Paragon had collected $269,504 with four days still left in the project.
"We are building the future model of R&D here," explains Natarajan Venkatakrishnan, director of FirstBuild. "It's a big paradigm shift for such a large corporation, but we believe it is the best way to come up with better ideas and better products ."
The set-up is two-fold: first, an online community of makers, designers and engineers post ideas for new appliance projects -- everything from WiFi-enabled refrigerators and automatic butter softeners, to countertops that communicate with your cellphone.
The community evaluates those ideas, modifies them, validates them and, eventually, nominates them for production.
Next, at the FirstBuild factory, local makers team up with GE engineers to produce low-volume runs of the winners. If those products find traction in the market, GE Appliance can take them on and scale them up for mass production.
This model, Venkatakrishnan argues, is beneficial for both parties.
"First, everybody whose ideas we take to market, we compensate those people," he explains. Even better for those makers, "even if we pay you and take it to market, you still own your intellectual property. If you want to sell it to someone else or start your own business, we don't stop you. "
On the GE side, the potential gains are arguably even sweeter.
"We are going outside the GE walls," Venkatakrishnan says.
"We have a lot of experienced engineers and designers at GE, but having a lot of experience also comes with a lot of baggage," he explains. "We have a lot of mindsets and certain ways of doing things, but tapping into the broad community outside our walls helps us come up with fresh ways that we can do stuff and solve our problems."
More importantly, these products are introduced with built-in market validation.
The Maker Movement
With the open community and open facility, every product receives instant feedback from a broad community of FirstBuild members, and the low-volume runs allow the community to gauge market reaction without the time, money and heavy analysis that comes along with mass production.
"Our mission is to get to the market as fast as possible and validate the ideas," Venkatakrishnan says. "Once it is validated, because we're associated with GE Appliance, we have the ability to take that product and scale it up to mass production."
As a result, the new product introduction cycles that span years at GE take just a matter of months at FirstBuild.
"We believe the best way to get something to market is to pair up engineers, designers and markets on the inside with the idea people on the outside," Venkatakrishnan explains. "If we can get them to collaborate and work together, then we can get better ideas to the market much faster than we could alone."
"So that's what we're doing," he said. "We're getting together and trying to get this idea to work."
Whether this experiment works or catches on in the industry or not is still far from decided. Despite some promising signs of progress, 100 years' worth of mass production tradition is hard to shift.
However, the model does fit nicely into Chris Anderson's narrative of the future of manufacturing.
"The shape of the 21st century's industrial structure will be very different from the 20th century's," he writes. "Rather than top-down innovation by some of the biggest companies in the world, we're seeing bottom-up innovations by countless individuals, including amateurs, entrepreneurs and professionals. We've already seen it work before in bits, from the original PC hobbyists to the Web's citizen army. Now the conditions have arrived for it to work again, at even greater, broader scale, in atoms."
"You think the last two decades were amazing?" he adds. "Just wait."