The third industrial revolution

A third industrial revolution is underway. And like all revolutions, this one will be disruptive. Manufacturing is going digital and this is changing not just how things are made but also where. In this new era, everyone can potentially be their own manufacturer as well as their own internet site and power company.

The factory of the past was based on cranking out zillions of identical products: Ford famously said that car-buyers could have any colour they liked, as long as it was black. But the cost of producing much smaller batches of a wider variety, with each product tailored precisely to each customer’s whims, is falling. The factory of the future will instead focus on mass customisation—and may look more like weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line.

At the same time the geography of supply chains is also changing. For example, an engineer working in the middle of a desert who finds he lacks a certain tool no longer has to have it delivered from the nearest city. He can simply download the design and print it. The days when projects ground to a halt for want of a piece of kit, or when customers complained that they could no longer find spare parts for things they had bought, will one day seem quaint. Now a product can be designed on a computer and “printed” on a 3D printer.

Adhocracy“, an exhibition currently on display at the New Museum in New York City, takes this shift in manufacturing as its premise, with a focus on the who and what of this new era: Who makes things today, and what kinds of things are they?

To answer this question, twenty-five projects — static objects, for the most part, enlivened by a few films and a couple of human makers — are displayed on a modular grid system of unfinished wooden plinths, giving the room an almost science-fair atmosphere. Part of the OpenStructures group’s meccano set of shared geometrical parts, intended as a basis from which everyone designs for everyone, the exhibition’s display mechanism is itself an example of the kind of open systems, tools that enable self-organization, and platforms driven by collaboration that the exhibition’s curator, Joseph Grima, argues characterise the maximum expression of design within this new paradigm of distributed making.

In the commercial world, this new paradigm of distributed making is expressed under the guise of ‘making as another form of consumption’. For example, Nike’s Steaming Lounge at Nike Town Oxford St. provides cosmetic customisation of Nike products in store, where lightweight trainers can be steam fitted to create a running shoe that hugs your toes like a custom-fit glove.

Designers behind the Stratigraphic Manufactory printed cups, bowls, and vases from ceramic powder and then published their 3D models online, asking people from around the world to print the same objects using local clay. The result is a series of objects that are the same, but subtly different, thanks to the unique properties of local materials.

And at Heineken there is talk of reintroducing designer John Habraken’s bottle that could double as a building material in developing countries where ready-made bricks could be hugely useful.

As the lines between manufacturing and services blur, these new manufacturing technologies bring a new complexity to the relationship between brands and consumers.

Brands are now starting to begin to make more of a critical commentary about ownership, of being a part of a networked culture, resistance to industrialised homogeneity and empowerment of the individual (e.g. Coke’s ‘Find your name’).

Rather than fighting the shift towards DIY culture, the most successful brands will embrace it and create tools and services to help end-users achieve more, drive personalisation and sense of ownership.

At the same time consumers are beginning to celebrate aesthetics of imperfection, spontaneity, and difference that is the inevitable outcome of design as a collaborative act of production, rather than what Grima characterises as “its former definition as a heroic gesture of individual genesis.”