September 7th, 2012
Perhaps you too remember that crayon-factory segment from Sesame Street. The one where they show dramatic shots of hot orange wax getting poured into vats and molds and eventually labeled and boxed up into neat packages of the rainbow, while Skrillex-junior music played in the background. This was my favorite segment on Sesame Street, evidenced mostly by the fact that it’s really the only one I remember. Not to worry if you have no recollection, I found it for you on YouTube.
Some people freak out when they see movie sets, or space stations, or fire trucks, but for me it has always been factories. I spent some time 2005-2008 wandering in and out of factories in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Chaozhou and what was most surprising was how much is still made by hand. It is not all robots, even remotely.
And modern supply chains were built around that very premise – that hands were needed, and the best way to compete and scale was to find the cheaper hands. But some very interesting rumblings on the periphery of mainstream production (specifically in electronics) indicates not that the need for hands is going away, but that the entire system is evolving in a much more fundamental way.
The latest buzz-phrase-of-late seems to be “hardware is the new software” – and from what I can tell, the significance rests in the idea that the formerly painful process of making software has become a mostly democratized affair that has created many billion dollar companies along the way. The same will soon happen in hardware. And “soon” is used very loosely here. Could be 2, 12, 20, years down the road (ok probably not 2), but it seems near-inevitable that the shift will create many new and interesting companies along the way.
I titled this post “APIs for Manufaucturing” because that’s what I hope will happen; in many ways the changes are already underway. The dream is that manufacturing will eventually be democratized through a series of APIs. They will make it easy for aspirational producers to access expensive production devices that they would not be able to get access to on their own. Because sadly manufacturing is still extremely difficult and out of reach for all but the most tenacious producers. Open-source hardware and consumer-friendly 3D printing is slowly changing that, but getting any sort of scale remains quite difficult.
A great read from yesterday is Ben Kaufman’s blog post on Quirky’s recent $68m fundraise. Perhaps the most insightful observation for me was from this reaction piece: “After several trips to China, Kaufman realized that he actually needed to master a list of “50 or 60″ disciplines to make his product a reality”. It is these 50 or 60 disciplines that will one by one become companies in the still-nascent MaaS market (manufacturing-as-a-service, a term not-yet widespread but still used). Perhaps that’s why this is such an exciting time in hardware – the changes are materializing but are nowhere close to realized.
Mass market to MaaS market? Fuck yeah. The fun is just beginning.