I am often invited to events and launches of new services, products or initiatives, many promise something new and cutting edge. However, last Thursday I saw the flickering of an industrial revolution. Something new and truly exciting; something so revolutionary that a fellow guest said ‘How I wish I would be here in a thousand years to see how this has changed the world.’ And she wasn’t exaggerating…
An expert panel, including Julie Madigan, Chief Executive, The Manufacturing Institute; Alice Taylor, – founder and CEO of MakieLab; Bas van Abel, founder of Fairphone; and Dr Laura James, Co-Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation and co-founder of Makespace. The event was introduced by HRH The Princess Royal, RSA President and Vikki Heywood CBE, RSA and all was chaired by Matthew Taylor CEO of the RSA.
This very knowledgeable and enthusiastic group gathered to discuss, with an audience, revolutionary new approaches to making and manufacturing in the 21st century. The focus was on the impact and implication of new digital fabrication technologies. These new technologies are what the media casually refers to as 3D printers. Personally I think the media are understating the potential and the implications of this new world which is already shining its rays above the horizon.
This technology is capable of producing usable items and replacement parts digitally and in one offs. So what I can hear you say, so this is a different way to make stuff. Hear me out.
In theory, this new technology will enable a consumer to download the design of an item and to ‘manufacture’ it, either using their own ‘printer’ or perhaps one owned by the community. This will have an impact on where the control sits, more of a shift towards the consumer. I felt excited about that, but the real McCoy was yet to come.
I talked to a young man, bright and fresh from university, who has designed a prototype of a washing machine, which should it falter, even I, who can barely recognise a screw driver could be able to determine which part needed replacing, order the part and fit it myself and then send the old part back to the ‘manufacturer’ to recycle. The concept was that a washing machine was for life, not just for Christmas.
Another bright spark presented to us a ‘new world’ toaster, still at concept stage and again all with fully recyclable, replaceable components. The washing machine was very futuristic but the toaster reminded me of the post-war years. There was something very solid, reliable and permanent about it. Something that said, ‘I have saved up for this and it is precious to me; this will be with me forever.’ I had suspicions that neither of these young inventors truly recognised the impact they could have on manufacturing, never mind the mentality of society.
Although I do feel a sense of excitement, it’s mixed with panic. Excitement because this technology will impact on the way we behave and our throwaway society; because it will impact positively on the world’s scarce resources; because it will start to shift more control towards the consumer rather than the manufacturer. Panic, because if we take advantage of this new technology and give it space to breathe, then we will require a shift in attitudes, business models and working methods which have been built up over centuries.