Are atoms the new bits?

Are atoms the new bits?

It all started when Chris Anderson wrote an article for WIRED titled “In The Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are The New Bits in which he took the position that, in effect, “making” constituted a new paradigm that would reshape the way manufacturing works. Along came feisty blogger Joel Johnson of Gizmodo who penned a withering rebuttal titled Atoms Are Not Bits; WIRED is not a Business Magazine.

We at MAKE are a little prejudiced toward the Andersonian model, maybe because it makes us look like heroes. Vanity aside, there’s certainly a lot of compelling evidence that we’re on to something. Look at commercial ventures, like Makerbot and Adafruit, born of an open-source maker ethos that does not at all resemble the way regular businesses operate — even small businesses. Still, we’re all about a spirited debate. To this end, we’ve invited Joel to come and make his case. For the home team: MAKE magazine’s founder and publisher, Dale Dougherty! Click through to follow the scrum.Joel restated his opinion for us:

There are two issues at hand. First, I think desktop fabrication is an
incredibly neat thing. It will mature, becoming ever more capable of making intricate things. But it’s not the future of manufacturing any more than, say, machine shops are the future of mass market cars.

Desktop 3D printers like MakerBot are already capable of producing some amazing stuff, but none of it matches the durability of metal or industrial-strength plastic. It won’t surprise me to someday see 3D printers gain the ability to mix substrates and materials, but it will be decades before a home printer can match the fidelity of any given bit of electronics mass-manufactured today.

But let’s presume for a moment that a desktop printer could, say, print an iPhone. Where would the raw materials come from? They’re still being sourced from the same less-than-eco-friendly sources they come from today. The environmental cost of material goods doesn’t change one bit. Atoms will not be the new bits until we can literally transmute one type of atom into another.

Which leads me to the companion presumption recently posited by Wired‘s Chris Anderson: that the ability to make circuit diagrams or 3D models at home, email them to suppliers, and get back a small batch of samples was a huge revolution. The only things that are different about today’s model than twenty years ago are simply that 1) the internet exists, and 2) international shipping is inexpensive.

People have been having experts fabricate one-off or small batch products for ages. It’s just that it was usually some guy around town, not some distant Chinese worker. It’s nice that the world is now connected enough that this market has become distributed, but just as there was never any danger that kit car manufacturers would threaten Ford, there’s nothing to indicate that small batch electronics manufacturing will change the way the mass market will acquire our gadgets in any fundamental way.

But if anyone proves me wrong it’ll be the maker hobbyists, so please don’t stop on my account!

Next, we asked Dale to weigh in…

I’m not going to use my limited space (as defined by the time, not the bits, required to fill it) to argue with Joel Johnson’s objections to Chris Anderson’s article. Whether it’s framed as the next industrial revolution or not doesn’t matter to me but what does matter is that “something’s happening here and what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I appreciate Anderson’s attempt to give it a shape and clarity.

What I see happening is that makers are discovering more opportunities to go into business, to go pro. It is becoming easier for makers to design, develop, and distribute products as well as offer services. It doesn’t mean they will succeed but they can enter the market more easily.

While a lot of the interest and enthusiasm for making things has been driven by hobbyists, as was the development of the personal computer early on, some of the hobbyists have begun to see opportunities to create value for others. I’ve started using the term Maker Pro because these makers have moved from being amateurs to professionals. Some of them start their own companies, while others are hired by existing companies to introduce new ideas and techniques. It’s akin to open source developers doing work for free on open source projects, yet many of the best ones end up starting companies or going to work for companies like Google who need their expertise.

What’s interesting is to compare the opportunity to start a new business (or develop a new product) in hardware or software today. There’s no doubt that there are fewer obstacles to developing a software product, such as iPhone app or a Facebook app. If you have a good idea, you can acquire the skills, knowledge, and tools needed to build that app. What’s also valuable is that Apple and Facebook help you organize a market for your product. It’s not hard to start a small software company developing those products. (It might be hard to become a really big software company developing those products, however.)

In contrast, there are more obstacles to manufacturing and distributing a physical product. It’s not that the obstacles are going away, but rather, they’re getting easier to overcome. One big factor is that manufacturing tools are becoming more affordable, even at the prosumer level. The introduction of laser printers was a boon not only to people who might print their own brochures or newsletters, but even to graphic artists and designers who did the same work professionally. (It also helped a few writers become publishers, as we did at O’Reilly.) Who knows what 3D printers and laser cutters and other toolsets will make possible? Having access to these tools at places like TechShop or hackerspaces can also make a difference.

The other factor is that there’s greater flexibility in manufacturing to handle smaller volumes. This can allow for production runs in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands. It is also easier to interface to manufacturing processes through the Web and get a prototype in a day or two. The speed of iteration can improve product development. For the entrepreneur, product ideas can be tested at a lower cost of entry.

There’s still a distribution problem, say if you develop a new gadget and want to get into channels like BestBuy. However, one can take the example of self-published books, and how the authors use the Internet to prove that there’s interest in their product, which catches the attention of a traditional publisher. The Internet makes it possible to get into the market and test out a new product. Previously, only your friends knew you had a good product idea.

Eric Von Hippel points out in his book, Democratizing Innovation, that a lot of innovation is driven by users, creating new products that they can use themselves, such as a kayak that’s shaped to handle rapids in a fast river. As a result, they create new markets for products, niche markets that the bigger players didn’t see or didn’t take seriously. These can be niches that grow nicely over time. (It was exactly how O’Reilly started. Nobody thought publishing UNIX books was a good business but we didn’t know that.) We’re seeing “a thousand factories bloom.” Makers are developing knowledge and skills, building the capacity to take ideas and make them into something physical and tangible that can be put into other people’s hands.

Is this the next big thing? Joel would say no. I don’t know the answer. (I would like to believe the answer is a resounding yes.) What we do know is that we have more people making and doing things who aren’t worried about the answer to that question. They’re just doing their own thing, whether it’s the next big thing or not. Like Steve Wozniak said famously of his days as a hobbyist: “I just loved going to the Homebrew Computer Club, showing off my ideas and designing neat computers. I was willing to do that for free for the rest of my life.” Fortunately, Steve Jobs found a way for them both to make some money doing what they loved.

Thank you Joel and Dale! Now, what do you think, readers? Talk to us in the comments.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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