A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to be part of a great debate, during the In(3d)stry conference in Barcelona. I joined the “MakerPro” panel, clearly exploring the professionalization of the so-called “maker” culture. As a strategic advisor to OSVehicle — a YCombinator fellow startup that is revolutionizing the way to manufacture specialty vehicles — I was asked to tell our experience and vision, among other things.
In a crucial moment of the debate I had to discuss, more or less heatedly, even with my friend Tomas Diez — director of Fab Lab Barcelona and one of the minds behind the Fab City project — about how, in reality, the improvements in digital fabrication, coupled with the growing awareness in the maker movement, could potentially change the way tangible products are built, serviced and used plus, most of all, our culture as users of such products.
Even if, just few days ago, a controversial article from Newsweek insinuated that the bubble of 3D printing may have burst and many are quick to decree the death of 3D printing, it is not the first time we live a wave of disappointment in relation to the real potential of these two, very coupled, trends: 3d printing and the makers movement. The most observant will have noticed that, already in 2014, a very thorough research work, the number 5 in the of Journal Peer Production, gave a critical interpretation of the real impact of a growing maker (and makerspace) movement. As Troxler summed up effectively in the title of his essay: “We Have the Means of Production, but Where Is My Revolution?”
Finding a solution to our problems is still too difficult
So how can we really get closer to the Fabcity vision of the self-sufficient city that produces locally? How can we expect this transition to happen, helping us moving from the Product In — Trash Out (PITO) paradigm (where our cities are just huge waste producers) to the Data In — Data Out (DIDO) paradigm where cities are collective brains that use and remix knowledge and products are circular, local and sustainable?
This remains an open issue today to which the big (and small) makers revolution narrative never really gave much of an answer.
But let’s start with a personal experience: a few days ago my son’s stroller broke. With the aim to reduce my ecological footprint, I originally purchased it second-hand, about a year ago. The first thing I did when it broke was to try to look up — on the internet — for a service center that was able, I innocently thought, to sell me spare parts: the broken piece was nothing more than a tiny plastic hook that, unexpectedly from a design standpoint and unluckily for the consumer, holds the stroller together when it is running and allows you to effectively climb small steps.
To my disappointment, however, the piece in question (evidently subject to breakage, if only for the stress) was not among those that the brand — Inglesina in this case — made available to customers as spare parts — despite they do with some other parts. I ended up watching interrogatively the store’s clerks and bitterly thinking that I had to quickly buy another stroller (which I did, changing brand, this time with a new product that at least would give me a two-year warranty).
It is fairly obvious — especially for those who know me and know my often critical relationship with consumption — that, before making a new purchase, my mind explored every possible alternative. The “let’s-3d-print-it!” idea thus quickly made its way through the possibilities: however, the concerns and difficulties — effectively described a few days ago on Inc. by John Brandon — have been decisive for me to change the plan.
“I really wanted to print the cup holder. I even asked a well-known Thingiverse designer for help, and was going to pay him, but he said the part was too complex. Wait, what? Too complex for a well-known designer? He even used the word “hassle” in his email back to me. The part is not something you’d use on a NASA spaceship. It does have a spring attached to two pieces of plastic that fold together.“
John Brandon: “4 Important Lessons You Can Learn Now That 3-D Printing is Dying”, Inc.
But how was my direct experience? First and foremost, the Fablab that was closer to my house — I live in Rome’s countryside, the Castelli Romani — was almost 40 kilometers away; secondly a 3D model of that broken part wasn’t available and therefore would have to be modeled ad-hoc with obviously not trivial expertise and time needed (see the quote above). In addition, the mechanical mounting of the piece on the stroller itself (riveting) did not allow a great ease of disassembly and reassembly: in short, to repair this stroller using desktop 3D printing technology and a Fablab’s expertise network, would have been a real hacking process.
I don’t want to take part to the cultural revolution: just give me a f***ing convenient experience
Certainly, in this process I would have learned a lot: as a consumer I would perhaps finally printed my first 3D printed piece, someone at the FabLab might have learned some new scanning and modeling technique of complex parts and probably the Inglesina brand — if it had been informed — could learn something about how to produce products with less inclination to break and increased repairability, given that this is a strategic objective pursued by that brand, as it should be in the 21st century.
To this cultural shift — that of a user who gets over its consumer mindset, that engages with the community, that bonds with conspiring hackers, develops curiosity and expertise to self-repair, hacks and takes action — the Fabcity, and the makers movement in general, has historically made too much of a reference.
But how would it be possible for me — as a victim of a complicated routine, featuring freelance work and family, between trips, conferences, deliveries, articles to write, time to spend with my son — to do all this? Simply, it wouldn’t have been and, finally, in fact, it was not. All this was not “convenient” enough.
Convenience and user experience — essential in the hyper-connected and fast world we live where everybody is under pressure, whether we like it or not — are too central to yield to an ideal vision of the manufacturing revolution that is cumbersome, “political “ and ultimately bohemian.
Mobilizing ecosystems through Platforms: this is the future of manufacturing
But then, how will this needed revolution happen? There is no doubt that we will have to make different products: designed for repairability, based on open knowledge and information and with an accessible design and documentation. Players like iFixit are working on this since years, also having a positive collaboration with manufacturers around the world.
However, most of all, more than industrial design choices, and more than the cultural revolution of making and repairing, I believe that will be important to learn how to design for systems. Is essential to develop an ability — for entrepreneurs and designers — to design for ecosystems and learn how to leverage collaborative processes through platforms, with product-service strategies that can motivate the right entities to take part in the production processes of the future.
If we’re going to see a manufacturing revolution, this is going to happen behind the customer line of sight: will be led by businesses that design themselves as platforms and create great customer experiences. These businesses won’t adopt complex industrial supply chains and processes but will create customer value through the enablement and the orchestration of production and servicing capabilities that are slowly regaining presence — also through FabLabs and makerspaces — in our cities.
In this sense the great product brands of tomorrow — today maybe just small design studios or even large incumbents looking for new strategies — will surely have to learn how to deal with the maker movement but even more, they will need to learn new design skills such as those we are trying to make accessible through the Platform Design Toolkit.
Anyone wishing to build the stroller of the future — sustainable, circular, future-proof and perfect for the Fab City — should definitely focus primarily on designing it as simple, easily assembled and repairable object, that is made of accessible materials that can be sourced locally (like aluminum tubes, common fabrics, or 3d printable plastic components). However, the product design itself would be only the first step: the brand should collaterally design the platform (as a set of technological tools, standards and human processes) that will help mobilize the right ecosystem around the user’s needs. The ecosystem will provide the tasks and the capacity not only to produce the object but also (as it should have been in my case) to pick up a broken one, fix it by finding the necessary materials and bring it back to the customer as quick as possible.
If we take OSVehicle’s example — as a platform to build specialty vehicles — in addition to ensuring that our EV platform is modular, simple and open source, we are also working tirelessly to help customers understand and implement local and collaborative production models, when this makes sense. The goal is to create products whose manufacture can be integrated into the national (regional or municipal) productive systems and to enable brands & startups that don’t require portentous investments and hundreds of employees to exist in the first stage.
“Companies such as Uber and AirBnB developed platforms to enable the sharing of resources, rather than owning their own fleet of cars or hotels. Could manufacturing firms also embrace this sort of platform economy, distributing production across hundreds or thousands of networked micro-factories?
Anna Waldman-Brown: ”Can Manufacturing be democratized?”, Medium)
As an example, a city shared mobility service designed in line with these principles, should be powered by a fleet of EVs that is kept operational, repaired and maintained by an ecosystem of tens of medium or small machine shops and on-demand workers coordinated through an algorithm and a digital platform. Such a system should be capable to hide the complexity of the business process to the end user and — at the same time — to incentivize the participants on the supply side of the ecosystem with economic opportunities, learning paths and capability improvements.
In conclusion, I believe it is time to question the digital fabrication & the makers movement’s ability to really embody the future of manufacturing in cities. If this future unfolds, it will likely not be by virtue of yet another 3D printing workshop, but thanks to designers’ ability to design convenient experiences for a customer who does not want to hear you speak about a revolution but just wants a stroller that doesn’t break or, at least, can be quickly repaired without creating too many hassles to an already complicated life.
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Image Credits for the Manufacturing Illustration:
Person by Alexander Smith from the Noun Project
CNC Milling Machine by Toke Frello from the Noun Project
Factory by Franc from the Noun Project
Brain by Sergey Patutin from the Noun Project
Wrench by freiluftkonzepte from the Noun Project
Materials by Marek Polakovic from the Noun Project
Store by Aaron K. Kim from the Noun Project
Stroller by Luis Prado from the Noun Project