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.

28 thoughts on “Are atoms the new bits?

  1. Are atoms the new bits? jktechwriter says:

    I’ve read both articles… and see truths in both pieces. It can be argued that we’re not in the midst of a growing revolution… but then when I see homemade CNC machines and MakerBots humming along, motors spinning – I have to think this is exactly how the farmer and blacksmith felt when they first saw mass production (or read about it, more likely).

    I think people are creative by nature, and we’re all looking for ways to take what’s in our heads and make them real. Maybe the real revolution is that it’s finally becoming cost effective and technology feasible to actually do this – take my idea and make it real instead of selling the idea to Big Name Company (or having it stolen) and letting them do it.

    China isn’t a black box – it’s real people. But they don’t appear to want to turn away the work. As long as they’re willing to take my order and fulfill it – me, the lone employee of my company – that is revolutionary.

  2. jpersonna says:

    It feels like the days when PCs were still odd, and “why would I want one?” was still a question.

    That said, there were some heady days for Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality as well.

    We get a reduced subset of the revolutions we hope for.

    1. MauiMaker says:

      jpersonna’s relating the maker biz to AI and VR hit a chord with me. I’ve been deep into both worlds. I did a lot of garage VR back in the early 90s. I never made any profit from that directly, but it did get me some writing gigs and then an intro to the DARPA feeding trough.

      These days I’ve got my makerbot, which is a nice toy akin to (but better) than my Processor Tech SOL, as well as new skills with CNC – real iron like jdmorse knows, and welding. That and a new location (clue in name) with farming thrown in. Shipping really hits the pocketbook for me now. International rates may be low, but just try to get Overstock to ship to Alaska or HI.

      The FabLab/Maker meme is an everything old is new again – and trying to make it local. If the designs come from (or go) elsewhere then yea for sharing!
      Does the Globalization Economy have to mean only Big Corporations get to profit, shifting mass production to the cheapest, most exploitable locale? Is there a way for small business to operate more globally? How does Sustainability fit in? How about training local populace that sees little options for success (especially with big ag leaving the islands)?

      VR and AI and nanotech and flying cars and space travel and lots of other tech got hyped big, especially in their early days when SciFi and pundits put out fantastic, nearly magical, visions. Heck they were magical – the technology they called for was beyond the physically impossible… until we found new ways to do these things, and new markets showed up.

      keep making!

  3. alandove says:

    It definitely feels like the early PC days. The MakerBot and its kin have precisely the same “some assembly required” look and feel as the Apple ][+ and TRS-80. You can’t do much useful work with a MakerBot, and you couldn’t do much useful work with the early PCs, but that’s beside the point. They’re proof-of-concept products.

    Now we just have to figure out whether desktop fabrication is a concept that needed proving. In other words, we have to find the killer apps. What can desktop fabrication do that nothing else before it could? For personal computers, the killer applications – first spreadsheets and then the World Wide Web – came out of left field. If desktop fabrication has a killer app (and it may not), I imagine it will be something none of us saw coming.

    In any case, Joel is probably right: individual makers are never going to put mass production factories out of business. When Apple finally became a real rival to electronics giants like Sony, they didn’t do it by making hackable personal computers – they did it by making the next Walkman.

  4. SKR says:

    I’ve been liking gizmodo less and less recently.

  5. freaklabs says:

    The point of all the interest in DIY isn’t about allowing hobbyists to mass produce items. The real point of it all is that there’s a movement going on where consumers are not satisfied with only using gadgets for a given task. And now tools are starting to be put in place that allows consumers to tweak, modify, and customize technology to suit their own specific needs.
    There won’t be a person that would want to make an iPhone on a makerbot, firstly because a smart hacker would just buy a used iPhone (or most likely iPod Touch) and then start customizing it for whatever they wanted to use it for.
    It’s breathing new life into the world of technology because artists and techies are starting to converge on to the same projects and fountains of innovation like hackerspaces are popping up all over the world.
    I don’t think any of us in the open hardware/software community are trying to enable mass production of consumer items. We’re trying to enable mass consumers to become producers of things they used to only imagine about.

    1. oskay says:

      Freaklabs: I think that you may have mis-read what Joel is saying. Go back and read his original article (linked above).

      Joel is definitely arguing the same side that you are– that the DIY movement is NOT going to replace large factories doing mass production.

  6. EngineerZero says:

    Laser printers are able to print out several pages per minute at a resolution of thousands of dpi. A thousandth of an inch tolerance is acceptable for many mechanical components. So a laser printer is proof of concept for three dimensional printing, we need to:

    1. Use a more durable material.
    2. Figure out how to layer particles in three dimensions.

    Why not extrapolate from laser printer technology? As I recall, the page is electrostatically charged, and then the laser de-statics each print-point on the page so that the powder will stick there. That sounds like technology that could be tinkered into three dimensions.

    An Arduino microcontroller has a clock speed of megahertz, probably gigahertz someday soon. That could lay down millions, maybe billions of particles per second, which even at a thousand dpi would be a cubic inch per second.

    So I can see the day when a cheap three dimensional printer will be able to churn out high tolerance durable parts in a matter of minutes.

    When will that day be? Will it take more than ten years to go from the quasi-plastic goop they’re using now to something like iron or aluminum powder? In ten years, we ought to be able to pour in carbon nanotubes.

    As for printing microcircuitry, it’s all a question of resolution. Current home printing technology gets down to about 10^-4 to 10^-5 meter, and to put a million transistors into a square millimeter (current microchip state of the art) will require 10^-7 meter resolution. If Moore’s Law were in effect with home circuit printing technology, then a thousand-fold resolution improvement would take twenty years.

    You’d need the wavelength of an ultraviolet or x-ray laser. Is that okay for the home? Well, considering the kind of laser that goes into a blue-ray now, why not?

  7. Dan Goldwater says:

    > 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.

    yeah, and just those two change everything. the business and operational models of a whole lot more companies than just mine are only possible because of these two things.

    Dale – you are on the money throughout imho.

  8. jpersonna says:

    > and 2) international shipping is inexpensive.

    Note that DIY electronics are inexpensive because projects weigh in the ounces. I was commenting at Adafruit about the similarities and differences between this movement and yesterday’s shop tinkerers:

    “Humans are makers, no doubt. It goes back to the very beginning.

    It’s possible that there was a quiet period, when more people came to think of themselves as consumers in an industrial society. Through it all though, there were people who had home shops, or who got to work on the kitchen table.

    Maybe we’re just figuring out how to make home shops sensible again, at a time when a board-foot of clear pine costs more than a hand-held UNIX messaging computer from Target.

    That’s probably the change. In a “shipping culture” it matters more the volume a thing occupies than its internal complexity. That makes pine boards for a project cost more than umpty-ump million transistors in an Adafruit kit.

    It really is shocking to go to the hardware store and see raw wood cost as much as finished goods … but when it’s about shipping and stocking costs, I guess why not?”

  9. salec says:

    “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.”

    Durability is not such a problem for someone making one’s own objects. You can always press a button and make another copy. Recyclablity of printouts, on the other hand, is. Tinkering certainly is about changing your mind and starting again with slightly (or largely) different layout. That constraint will affect the process of selecting materials to use – tinkerers will probably avoid some materials of mass-producers’ choice and unpredicted consequence will be that these new, individually made, custom tailored products will come with inherent recyclability.

    However, I expect this new revolution to repeat the history of microcomputers, and right now we are just past the Altair 8800 phase of home manufacturing:

    -First, the number of people making and using their own desktop fabs will rise steadily as more people will come jumping on the bandwagon.

    -At some point, military will decide that it is a neat idea logistics-wise and demand that their mobile field repair shops are equipped with rugged portable manufacturing systems capable of creating fairly strong mechanical parts for maintenance of their gear, which would reduce the need to haul all the different parts in quantities and allow army to make field modifications of their equipment if situation would demand it.

    -Then, if not even before military voices their need, some brave and bold company will seize the opportunity to step on the scene and take it all up on to the next level of quality and performance with their mass-produced desktop physical objects’ printers, probably introducing new proprietary materials, or some sort of multiple materials “ink cartridges” that would allow what Joel was talking about.

    -Next, the as other companies note the success of the pioneer (well, … proprietary variant pioneer) company, the competition will arise and we will see the growth of entire new industry take place.

    -After it all gets well entrenched and fairly standardized, we will witness the rebound of “openness” meme and new, much improved kind of MakerBots. In fact, they will be present all along, only not at the cutting edge, but as the industry matures and major breakthroughs get sparse, they will zero in on the very top.

    Now, recyclability … I expect completely new and unheard of kind of machines to accompany machines which produce things: robots which “eat” the products of yesterday and fill the charges of maker machines to allow them to make something new and better today!

  10. jdmorse says:

    I’m an old school tool & die maker and I’m not threatened by the new technology for a couple of reasons. The first is durability; yes you can print up another part that wears out but that’s not what durability means. It refers to the strength of the material. Sure you could print brackets to make a ladder, but I’m not going to climb up on it, not yet anyway. The second is cost; last I heard ABS was about $30/cubic inch. That makes for a very expensive ladder. I’m also an old science fiction fan and the idea that the Star Trek replicator exists in my lifetime is very exciting stuff. So I watch the technology and the make communities and sit in total awe and amazement. Dale’s right, something is going on here and I’m glad I can watch and maybe participate. These are exciting times!

  11. Rick Bullotta says:

    Below is the content of an email I sent Chris after reading the article…


    Hi, Chris.

    Interesting article. You’ll find huge support from me for the general idea of unleashing a new area of product innovation through the virtualization an disintermediation of the manufacturing value chain. I did a stint heading up the Future Manufacturing initiative at SAP Research, and we definitely had alignment with lots of the macrotrends you envision in your article. That said, the article (or maybe some of the blurbs that your layout people pulled out for accentuation) consist of contradictory statements and some hyperbole that needs to be clarified.

    Also, I’m a big fan of what the DIY prototypers (Bre Pettis and Makerbot being one) are doing, and of the community model they’re evangelizing – they’re the forward thinkers on an important trend. But ya gotta inject a little reality into the situation. Doing 3D models in SketchUp is very far from something your typical DIY-er is capable of, and the current incarnation of $1000 units is capable only of fairly rudimentary and low precision prototypes. This will change, driven by material science innovations (and even bioscience), will see serious advancement in these areas in the coming decades, where actual, useful components (and even organs) will be “printed”. But we are far from that today, at least in any accessible (read: cost effective) form for DIYers.

    Also, the cover line “Factory, workers, … are all obsolete” couldn’t be further from reality. In fact, the factory and its workers are the key to making long tail manufacturing a reality. A new type of factory, indeed, with the ability to rapidly adapt to small lot or lot size one orders, flexible tooling, usig a broad range of materials and processes. And they’ll need a new breed of factory worker – no longer the fleshbot performing Henry Ford’s repetitive tasks, but someone who can think, adapt, improve, and can fill the role of production, real-time maintenance, and process engineer. The disintermediation of the manufacturing value chain, which we’ve clearly already seen in electronics and pharma, is continuing into all verticals. One day, we might see local, highly flexible micromanufacturing that dramatically reduces the cost of transporting goods, and can be located near renewable energy sources, which will have additional positive effects.

    But make no mistake, turning ideas into atoms on any substantial scale, in a cost effective manner, requires factories and workers – a new breed of them, and one that will require SUBSTANTIAL investment to realize. Additionally, it is naive to assume that only low-cost labor locations will be able to provide these virtual manufacturing services. In fact, innovation in the underlying equipment and processes may totally reverse that situations.

    I definitely dig a lot of the ideas you’ve laid out, but the implementation is a different story, and one that’s still being written. I look forward to hearing and reading more about next gen manufacturing from you and the Wired team!


    Rick Bullotta
    CTO/Co-Founder Burning Sky Software

    P.S. – Here’s a link to a talk I gave at the SAP Manufacturing conference a few months ago – I tried to tie in some of Toffler’s Third Wave concepts (transition from the industrial to information revolution) to the trends in manufacturing and software that I envision. Hope you find it interesting.

  12. Morten Skogly says:

    Read this fantastic scifi novel if you haven’t already, it’s all about custom fabrication, new ideas and nanotechnology. Love it, I’ve read it twice.

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