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Is small the next big thing in manufacturing?

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Chris Anderson has written a phenomenal article about the democratization of manufacturing in a recent issue of Wired magazine. I cannot recommend the article enough, if for no other reason than the chance to learn about a lot of cool micro-manufacturing companies, like Jawbone manufacturer (and Arena customer) Aliph and open-source car company Local Motors, which has been featured previously in this blog.

There is one passage in particular that I would like to highlight. It’s a bit lengthy, but I think the point Anderson makes is strong and is best left as unabridged as possible. Here is his take on what’s driving this revolution (emphasis is mine):

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands, or more.…

Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets… ‘Three guys with laptops’ used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.

‘Hardware is becoming much more like software,’ as MIT professor Eric von Hippel puts it. That’s not just because there’s so much software in hardware these days, with products becoming little more than intellectual property wrapped in commodity materials, whether it’s the code that drives the off-the-shelf chips in gadgets or the 3-D design files that drive manufacturing. It’s also because of the availability of common platforms, easy-to-use tools, Web-based collaboration, and Internet distribution.

We’ve seen this picture before: It’s what happens just before monolithic industries fragment in the face of countless small entrants, from the music industry to newspapers. Lower the barriers to entry and the crowd pours in.”

What do you think? Are we on the verge of the age of small-scale manufacturing? Are you seeing a lot of small start-ups in your market take advantage of these trends and technologies? Are YOU that small start-up??

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