Fortune profiles the "Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy," with a look at some of the people and groups making it possible for home inventors and innovators to design, make and sell unique and novel products. The article focuses on a guy designing a music player that looks like a Pez Dispenser as well as a few other similarly-quirky ideas. It's a good intro to an up-and-coming movement.
And it completely misses the big story.
Fortune is spot-on when highlighting the effect of design software and the various online services connecting developers to manufacturers. And the analogy they draw, between this new generation of inventors and other pathways to digital creation (blogging, podcasting, even mash-ups) is a good one. But they miss the signal difference between previous waves of "DIY" innovation and the present: collaboration. The Internet doesn't just enable cheap advertising and fabrication-by-email, the Internet makes it possible for disparate, distributed groups to connect up and share designs, tools and ideas. Open software is about to meet open fabrication.
Ironically, this notion is hinted at within the Fortune story, with the PezMP3 inventor relying on an online community for design suggestions, and (more directly) with the link to iFabricate, which defines itself as:
...a documentation and collaboration system that helps you record and share your projects with a mixture of images, text, ingredient lists, CAD files, and more. [...] iFabricate helps you link your projects to descriptions of tools, standard materials, and detailed sub-processes created by yourself and the ifabricate community. [...] Share your project exclusively with co-workers, open it to the world, or sell the plans or kit of parts.
More to the point, the founder of iFabricate describes it in the article as being "a Wikipedia for atoms." A SourceForge is probably closer in some respects, a clearing-house for free/open source software projects (and the model for BioForge, an open-source biotech site). And very clearly the free/open source software movement was the catalytic force behind this collaborative innovation era, as it made people aware of the potential of distributed groups of developers to come together to create something wonderful. Moreover, as the underlying engine of the "Tech Bloom," free/open source made it possible for innovators (software, initially, but soon in other realms) to experiment and get immediate feedback, support and, sometimes, assistance from other people around the world.
The number of people able and willing to collaborate on physical design projects will soon get much bigger. The rise of personal fabrication technology will make it possible for home designers to produce one-off and limited distribution products without having to outsource to Chinese factories. We're already seeing people making homebrew fabbers and free/open source fabber designs. Inkjet-style fabricators are already able to "print" biological tissues and polymer electronics (as well as resins and plastics). And just as relatively inexpensive laser printers and graphical computers kicked off the desktop publishing industry, these technologies will kick off a desktop fabrication industry. But it will be even bigger than that, because it will be collaborative fabrication, with designs shared as easily as music files.
This doesn't mean that we'll all have to design our own chairs and laptops, any more than the rise of F/OSS has meant that we all have to code our own software. Those of us with limited product design skills may well still purchase most of our gear from big manufacturers and retailers, adding various open fabrication items as we stumble across them. But we'll be able to choose from a more diverse field, as microdesigners will find niches and product ideas which appeal to them and a handful of others, personalizing the material world. The PezMP3 is an early indicator that such a scenario will soon unfold. Get ready.
I'm not sure I agree Fortune misses the point you say they miss. The collaborative angle seems to be sufficiently covered under the circumstances. If I were oblivious to their situation, I might agree that Fortune may not go far enough in the potential of all this; but then they're a mainstream magazine that probably knows their readership better than I do. So for them to write about the kind of thing I posted yesterday, for example, might probably do more to alienate their readers (in the sense that so many people already feel as if they're drowning in the rising technological tide) then to interest and engage them. In fact, the kind of thing I posted has been on my mind for years. Where have you been?
In October 2004, I began tracking the rise of personal fabrication. Inkjets hacked into crude replicators. But I never imagined it would unfold as fast as this. Self-replicating fabricators to self assembling, replicating, and repairing robots... all in less than a year.
My research began with the use of Inkjet printers to produce physical objects. Inkjet printers spitting polymer instead of ink to create extremely detailed 3d physical objects. A growing array of computer parts, complete working gadgets and solar cells followed from the widening jaw of the humble inkjet.
Then the pace quickened. Researchers Hod Lipson and Jordan B. Pollack at Brandeis University coupled inkjet technology and software to autonomously design and fabricate robots without human intervention. Other labs were using Inkjets to produce actual human skin complete with blood vessels.
Then the focus shifted from the role of Inkjets to the rise of personal fabricators.
In March 2005, we discovered engineers at the University of Bath working on a machine that can rapid prototype and replicate itself.
In early May, Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, announced his determination to produce affordable, replicating personal fabricators by 2025.
Later in May, Hod Lipson (who previously announced the process to design and fabricate robots without human intervention) pointed out the arrival of simple self replicating robots.
Mobjects From The Creative Energy Of Smart Mobs
Self-replicating fabricators will ensure they meet the inevitable exponentially growing demand. As they rapidly spread to thousands and then millions of people, they will mutate and evolve; enlisted to upgrade and propagate their own next generation.
We're very close. Neil Gershenfeld believes the only thing standing in the way now is getting the word out. Like this :)