Within the last decade, there has been a drastic shift in the world of production, pushing towards a democratisation of knowledge and tools for production and design for manufacture. (Wolf, 2012)
This has come about through several innovations, such as Arduino and cloud computing, as well as movements, such as the Rep-rap movement, maker / hackerspaces, and online tutorial repositories.
It is now cheaper and easier than ever to make products, and a trend for ‘desktop manufacturing’ has emerged as a part of the ‘3D printing revolution’, bringing tools and machinery that were once the size of a car, or required specialist spaces or equipment to own, now are the size of a large home paper printer, and require the most basic of tools and knowledge to operate (Kennedy, 2015). ‘Plug and Play’ has become a word that is in many ways synonymous with desktop manufacturing, referring to a product where little to no maintenance or set up is required. Whereas in the past, production facilities used trained technicians to operate industrial machines, now we have similar, albeit downscaled production capabilities being given to the average person, allowing them to learn as they make, as well as to designers, allowing quicker and more automated prototyping and visualisation of designs.
Between 2002 and 2014, roughly 225 patents related to early 3D printing expired. This brought many of the technologies developed over the previous 20 years, since the advent of 3D printing, to come into the public domain (Hornick, 2016). Start-ups like Makarov Industries, Formlabs and Printrbot stepped into the market, and suddenly 3D printing technologies like Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and Stereolithography (SLA) were found in desktop machines costing in some cases under $500, whereas the previously available machines cost upwards of $10,000 and were for industrial applications. Many argue that shifting towards affordable desktop 3D printing was one of the most influential steps towards the democratisation of production (Hoover & Lee, 2015).
Growing alongside the desktop 3D printing brands which emerged in the early 2000s, a movement appeared. Rep-rap – a shortened form for Replicating Rapid-prototyper – is a movement based around the idea of fully self-replicating rapid-prototyping machines (Reprap.org, 2017). The Rep-Rap movement relies heavily on open source technologies, notably public sector designs for printers and micro-controllers, such as Arduino. Released in 2005, Arduino has developed into one of the most widely recognised hardware/software micro-controller eco-systems in the World (Arduino.cc, 2017).
There has been an increase in the availability of technologies which were previously over-complex, over-priced or patent protected and inaccessible to average people, alongside a rise in community-based support networks. Symbiotic existence between these innovations has led to new trends such as those of being a ‘maker’ or a ‘hacker’ (Swan, 2014). These terms are not used in the traditional sense, but as new terms to describe those interested in accessing democratised tools for design and production, to either ‘make’ new innovations, or ‘hack’ existing products into having different or enhanced functions. This is in many ways an expansion in the number of people applying design thinking and practise. Makerspaces and hackerspaces emerged, with communities banding together tools and knowledge to collaboratively create hotspots of innovation and discovery (Dallasmakerspace.org, 2017). Online repositories of instructions on how to make and hack things, such as Autodesk’s Instructables, act as more accessible points of entry into community-based production and innovation (Instructables.com, 2017).
One of the most dramatic effects of the democratisation of production has been the effect upon start-up companies. In the year 2000, it cost an average of £3.3 million to create a tech start-up company. That cost has diminished in the following years, down to an average of £3,200 in 2011 (CB Insights, 2015). This shift has allowed tech start-ups to become powerful players in today’s technology industry. We also, however, see established, large organisations making use of democratised technologies to branch their business into different offerings, allowing them to bring the full weight of their established brand experience and technological advancement to bear, whilst adding in some of the offerings that smaller start-ups excel in. A prime example of this is the sporting footwear company New Balance, who have partnered up with Formlabs, a leading SLA printer company, to bring elements of the personalisation services which they have historically offered athletes, to the mass domestic market. The companies plan to begin integrating the Formlabs 3D printers into the New Balance production system in 2018 (Formlabs.com, 2017).
The democratisation of production is truly reshaping the way that we design and make things and will continue to do so for years to come. The effects which we are seeing now will have echoes that affect the future of production and design, not only for small start-up companies and entrepreneurs but also for the large established companies, keen to keep their place in the market and adapt to the pressures of increasing competition. The placement of advanced tools and knowledge into the hands of normal people and design professionals has so far led to many exciting social and technological developments, more of which emerge every day.
Article by Torin Lee
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