Will 'Desktop Manufacturing' Save the U.S. Economy?

Will 'Desktop Manufacturing' Save the U.S. Economy?

Chris Anderson believes the combination of web-enabled open sourcing and cheap manufacturing technology is the key to creating 'the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in manufacturing.'

Chris Anderson is a magazine editor, a father of five kids, and the grandson of the inventor of the automatic sprinkler system.

He also is the founder of what he says is the largest manufacturer of unmanned aerial drones in the United States.

It's that last point that Anderson believes has enormous implications for U.S. manufacturing -- and our economy as a whole.

Anderson, delivering a keynote address Wednesday at the 2012 Front End of Innovation conference in Orlando, Fla., said there's "a new industrial revolution" underway.

Thanks to the web -- which has enabled a digital, community approach to innovation and sourcing -- and the availability of "desktop-manufacturing" technology such as 3-D printing, "regular people can do what only factories could do before."

"This is how we're going to create the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in manufacturing," Anderson said. "This is how we're going to regain our role as the world's manufacturing powerhouse.

"Not because we have cheaper labor or cheaper electricity or more land, but because we have a better innovation model, and we have digital tools that are democratized in the hands of everybody."

"We're going to use the web's model to recharge manufacturing, because manufacturing increasingly looks like the web."

Outselling Lockheed Martin

Anderson believes that manufacturing increasingly will look like his startup company -- 3-D Robotics -- which grew out of his affinity for radio-controlled airplanes.

Several years ago, Anderson decided to create an online social network for people who are interested in unmanned aerial vehicles, after he came to the realization that smartphones contain "everything you need to fly a 747."

"Gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, GPS, cameras, wireless, processing -- the works," Anderson said. " ... And my only instinct was that there's something going on here, that the technology is cheap and easy, and getting cheaper and easier, so let me do my journey of discovery in public."

Through his online community -- "DIY Drones" -- Anderson connected with a number of like-minded people, including Jordi Munoz, a then-19-year-old high-school graduate from Tijuana who posted a video showing him flying a helicopter with a Wii controller.

Today, Munoz is the CEO of 3-D Robotics.

"We're the biggest drone-autopilot manufacturer in America," Anderson said. "We sell more of these things than Lockheed Martin does."

The "multimillion-dollar, very high-tech robotics-manufacturing company" that started out in a converted garage has succeeded, according to Anderson, because it's based on "an unbeatable innovation model."

"[3-D Robotics] was built by a community, for free, with volunteers around the world, using the web's innovation model," Anderson said. "We can create a new autopilot system in a year for zero dollars. It takes aerospace companies five years, and $5 million or $10 million."

It's a concept known as open sourcing, or crowdsourcing, and it's what enables Anderson's startup "to underprice the Chinese by a factor of three."

"The only way we can do is that we don't have to pay for R&D, because our intellectual property is co-owned by the community," he said.

" ... We have hundreds of developers around the world, including people who work for Apple and Google. These are people who are making your iPhone by day, and they're making drones for us by night -- for free -- because they love it, because they're passionate about this stuff, because they want it to happen."

Chinese Parts at the Click of a Mouse

The Internet, according to Anderson, has democratized manufacturing in another way: by opening up the global supply chain to regular people.

"It's an extraordinary thing," he said. "You can get robots in China to work for you with the click of a mouse."

There are other enablers at play, according to Anderson.

More and more people have access to CAD and prototyping tools on their desktops -- he noted that Autodesk 123D is available on the iPad.

Meanwhile, factories in China and around the world over the past decade have begun to embrace the web and "understand the importance and the ability to interact with small batches of people who want niche things."

The bottom line for entrepreneurs and inventors is this: Cheap parts and components are just a click-of-a-mouse away.

"Basically you go online and you look for manufacturers who do the kind of thing you want, and then you upload a [CAD] file to them and they give you a quote," Anderson said. "They take credit cards, and they take PayPal. And 10 days later, the thing shows up on your doorstep.

"And if the first run looks good, then you can order as many as you want."

3-D Robotics has factories in San Diego and Tijuana, Anderson noted, stocked with "rows and rows of pick-and-place machines and reflow ovens and stencil printers," among other equipment.

"We buy robots for the same price the Chinese do," he said. "We buy components for the same price the Chinese do. Our labor cost is low to begin with, but it's now less than 1% of the cost of the product."

A Fitness Club for Manufacturers

In the same way that Web-based desktop publishing -- blogs and social media -- enabled regular people to do things that once strictly were the domain of powerful media conglomerates, desktop-manufacturing technology is putting tools that once were found exclusively in factories into the basements of everyday Joes and Jills.

Anderson said he owns two 3-D printers -- one of which resides in his basement.

"In the same way that a 2-D printer takes pixels on the screen and outputs them as ink on the paper, a 3-D printer takes geometries, takes shapes on the screen, and outputs them in layers, in plastic or other materials," Anderson said.

" ... Anything you can imagine you can make and hold in your hand. And every weekend me and my kids imagine stuff and we make it."

In the next decade, Anderson predicted, "you or someone you know will have a 3-D printer in their home."

If you're not a fan of having industrial equipment in your home, you can buy a membership at TechShop, which provides access to milling machines, lathes, laser cutters, sheet-metal equipment, hand tools, sewing machines, 3-D printers and other manufacturing equipment.

TechShop, according to its website, is kind of like a fitness club for inventors, tinkerers, entrepreneurs "and anyone else who wants to be able to make things that they dream up but don't have the tools, space or skills."

"This is the new entrepreneurship," Anderson asserted. "It's happening in places like this because the tools are cheap and easy and accessible to all."

If funding is an issue, there are a growing number of websites that provide budding manufacturers with a means to raise capital for their projects.

The best-known site is kickstarter.com, where entrepreneurs and artists post descriptions of their business and creative projects, and backers fund the respective projects by pre-ordering the products with a credit card.

If the projects reach their funding goals, all backers' credit cards are charged. If the projects fall short, no one is charged.

Kickstarter provides value to prospective manufacturers not only by providing capital when it's needed most -- upfront -- but also by creating a community that can provide valuable support, feedback and word-of-mouth marketing, according to Anderson.

Kickstarter, which claims it has funded more than 20,000 projects since its launch in April 2009, has spurred other funding sites such as indiegogo.com and rockethub.com.

"This is the venture-capital market for the maker movement," Anderson said. "This is the financing model for the new industrial revolution."

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