Any study of the world of design reveals that concepts go through cycles of acceptance, falling out of favor, and rebirth. New renditions using different media or materials are brought to market and find life. In the world of entrepreneurship, similar patterns exist. E-commerce stores allow small businesses to compete with acclaimed retailers like Costco. The old-fashioned corner store emphasized personal service. Now, there are customer service “departments” that are outsourced to stay at home mom businesses in the heartlands. Back in the day, before either the industrial or information age, there were many businesses operating out of the home. Now, with internet access, we see a return to “cottage industries.”
One of the sectors that has experienced severe shrinkage and job loss domestically is manufacturing. The decline has been steady over several decades and many have lamented that we can never get back to where we were. What if the principles of design, retail, etc were applied to manufacturing? Could it experience a resurgence that makes it a key economic driver again? We are living in an age where start-ups are more plentiful and the amount of capital to get into business and keep it afloat is perhaps less than ever before. It stands to reason, then, that we could see a flurry of manufacturing start-ups, but what would have to happen for it to occur?
Bradley Starr writes in a blog for Entrepreneur Country about the (re)new(ed) trend of people who want to make products again, rather than intangible services–he refers to this group as “Makers.” He argues that the Makers are a movement that is good for small business and that many are realizing that they don’t have to become huge to be financially successful. Themes that ignite manufacturing entrepreneurs include technology, networking, and mass customization:
New technology driven tools such as the first of the low cost 3-D printers, numerical manufacturing machines cheap enough for the home and Arduino electronic controllers, enable small organisations and individuals to manufacture components, complete assemblies and machines that were previously the province of large organisations with big machinery. Collaborating with other Makers, designers and business services amplifies the skills, capability and capacity.
Networked small business is a most powerful force.
So Where’s the Market?
In two places:
1) Where made to order locally is more efficient than shipping in bulk from the other side of the world
2) Mass customisation and other small run products
If, for example, you need spare parts for a car, does it make sense to tie up cash and warehousing holding stock? The new machines can manufacture to order locally at a competitive price, and the low cost of the machines means that an engineer can run their own small business supplying this market. You just need to hold a relatively small amount of easily available raw material in order to make a wide range of products to order. Low cost of financing, fast delivery, great service.
The ability to produce small to medium runs of products cost effectively opens up the enormous opportunity of more individual products, giving free reign to design ambition and consumer choice.
Global product uniformity could be on the way out to be replaced by a far more interesting world.
Nothing short of a mini-industrial revolution is on the verge if enough believe what Starr says, in part echoing a Wired magazine article last year celebrating the Maker movement. This may become the “shot in the arm” so needed in former factory towns where “made in America” still carries a swagger and mentors abound with deep manufacturing experience. The potential to pair these experienced mentors with entrepreneurs, utilize new technology tools, benefit from networks and market conditions is an opportunity economic development groups should not ignore. Likewise, our educational institutions and chambers should champion the effort. Who’s game?