Back in the early 1940s my grandfather had a great idea. Noting the obsession Californians have with perfectly green front lawns, he decided that what they needed was an automatic sprinkler system. He lavished time and love on it, inventing this and fine-tuning that, and eventually came up with what was essentially an electric clock that could be timed to turn water valves on or off at given times of the day and night. Patent No. 2311108 was duly filed in 1943, at which point my grandfather started knocking on manufacturers’ doors. It was a long, arduous process. Finally, in 1950, after endless discussions, the Moody Rainmaster hit the stores. It earned my grandfather a modest income.
Recently, I decided to follow in his footsteps, but apply a little 21st-century know-how to the mix. Online I found a few like-minded souls interested in producing an improved water sprinkler. We used open-source software to help us create a sprinkler system not only capable of being operated remotely via an app by worried gardeners on holiday, but also sophisticated enough to factor in the latest local weather forecasts before deciding whether to switch the system on or off. We then sent our designs to an assembly house who duly came up with a smart-looking finished product. It has proved quite popular. It took my grandfather a decade and a small fortune to perfect his device and market it. It took us a few months and US$5,000.
That in a nutshell is the Maker movement — harnessing the Internet and the latest manufacturing technologies to make things. The past 10 years have been about discovering new ways to work together and offer services on the Web. The next 10 years will, I believe, be about applying those lessons to the real world. It means that the future does not just belong to Internet businesses founded on virtual principles, but to ones that are firmly rooted in the physical world.
This has massive implications not just for would-be entrepreneurs but for national economies. The fact is that any country, if it wants to remain strong, must have a manufacturing base. Even today, about a quarter of the US economy rests on the creation of physical goods. A service economy is all well and good, but eliminate manufacturing and you are a nation of bankers, burger flippers and tour guides. As for software and information industries, they may get all the press, but they employ just a small percentage of the population.
The nascent Maker movement offers a path to reboot manufacturing — not by returning to the giant factories of old, with their armies of employees, but by creating a new kind of manufacturing economy, one shaped more like the Web itself: bottom-up, broadly distributed and highly entrepreneurial. The image of a few smart people changing the world with little more than an Internet connection and an idea increasingly describes manufacturing of the future, too.
It is almost a cliche that anyone with a sufficiently good software idea can create a fabulously successful company on the Web. That is because there are practically no barriers preventing entry to entrepreneurship online: If you’ve got a laptop and a credit card, you’re in business. Manufacturing has traditionally been regarded as something else entirely. However, over the past few years, something remarkable has begun to happen. The process of making physical stuff has started to look more like the process of making digital stuff.