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Punk Manufacturing – The Next Industrial Revolution January 30, 2010

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Uncategorized.

I love this article by Chris Anderson in Wired. It is great journalism. Who says media is in trouble? You just need great journalism that is brilliantly presented both in print and online. Easy! But that is not what inspires me to write today. The future of media is another story and much discussed (media folks love navel gazing). The future of manufacturing is a much, much bigger story. It is a huge part of the story that I have been trying to chronicle here and in my writing on Read Write Web.

Do read the whole Wired article. The stories are inspiring on many levels. Story telling is an important art and Chris Anderson does it well. What I want to do is abstract some of the trends that key off this world that Chris is chronicling.

The story is encapsulated well in the headline:

In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits

Here are a few choice quotes (but really, read the stories, they bring this academic stuff to life):

Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.

This story is about the next 10 years.

Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

Or as MIT professor Eric von Hippel puts it:

“Hardware is becoming much more like software,”

Chris touches upon the naming issue, always fun when something is as nascent as this. How a name catches fire is totally mysterious:

Blogger Jason Kottke wrestled with what to call this new class of entrepreneurship, these cottage industries with global reach targeting niche markets of distributed demand. “Boutique” is too pretentious, and “indie” not quite right. He observed that others had suggested “craftsman, artisan, bespoke, cloudless, studio, atelier, long tail, agile, bonsai company, mom and pop, small scale, specialty, anatomic, big heart, GTD business, dojo, haus, temple, coterie, and disco business.” But none seemed to capture the movement.

Being a wordsmith, I am going to make my attempts. First, a rather academic one, the sort of thing that can talked about in boardrooms and MBA classes:

Emergent Manufacturing

That is part of emergent business networks. But that is rather dry. It does not capture the wild creativity of the maker culture. So my preferred name is:

Punk Manufacturing

Yes that dates me a bit. Punk was an attitude from bands who were fed up with the old music status quo. It was pure energy and creativity, not recognizing barriers, just smashing through. In the dark economic days in London in the late 1970s, listening to the Clash play London Calling had that same visceral energizing, optimistic feel.

These are dark economic days in America. The squeeze on the people-formerly-known-as-middle-class is horrendous. We know that government cannot help. We know that big companies cannot help. In our gut we know that both are the problem, not the solution and we need to take care of ourselves. But doing what? When anything digital moves to free, you have to make something. This leads some people back to small scale farming, inspired by Omnivore’s Dilemma.

I can see huge numbers of people inspired to do stuff with punk manufacturing. I can see my 8 year old son who just loves building lego. I hope he will be able to lead a life, make a living, building cool stuff.

It is interesting that the Wired article came out in the same week that the Apple iPad dominated the news. Frankly, I stayed away from that party. But a few posts caught my eye. This one by Alex Payne bemoans the fact that iPad is closed, that it won’t allow the young hackers of today to do what an earlier generation did with early PC and Apple technology. This is the line that resonated with me:

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.

I was going “yea, right on” as I read that. But after reading the Wired article, two other thoughts came to mind:

  1. Who cares? This is not where the action is any more. The PC problem has been solved. It works. Great. Move on. Use it to build/create something.
  2. Just do it punk! Don’t tell Jobs what to do. He won’t listen. It is his toy and his party. And he has usually been right from his angle at least. You don’t need Jobs. Build your alternative. That is the DIY spirit that Mike Arrington was working on with the Crunchpad. That did not pan out. But it could inspire many others to give it a go and one may have the user interface and design magic to make it catch fire.

The big picture for me is the resurgence of entrepreneurial creativity, not a few people creating the next Google. More like:

A million entrepreneurs now!

The ones who don’t worry about lack of credit, who see China and India as a resources and markets and not problems. The ones who have been told that they are just a punk and love to hear that.

This means the rollback of power of Big Coompanies. Chris has also been looking at Coase’s theories and how the Internet makes them relevant again. John Hagel has been showing how big American companies have been failing investors through declines in Return On Assets and how Chinese companies may show the way. The problem I have with John Hagel’s view is that he is attempting to teach elephants to dance, to teach Big Companies how to work like a network of small companies. That won’t work. The people running Big Companies like it that way and the transformation is too hard.

Big Companies will lose power to millions of small companies.

But I should re-emphasize that I consider John Hagel to be the leading strategic thinker on this subject. His work on emergent networks of motorbike manufacturers in China inspired Wikinomics and that inspired me to think again about stuff that I had almost forgotten about.

This is what I have been dimply perceiving and attempting to chronicle for a few years now in posts such as these:

This is why the doom and gloom about America is wrong. Although the next few years will be difficult economically, no other country has the entrepreneurial spirit to seize the types of punk manufacturing opportunity that Chris describes.


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