When I was a kid, the most exciting Christmas gift my parents got me was a green Honda QA50 mini-bike. Until I was upgraded to a cooler Honda Z50 a few years later, I rode the hell out of that little thing. Even stripped a great deal of skin off my 9-year-old body the first day riding– then got right back on, to my mother’s horror, and kept going.
But the most useful present was a Science Fair 100-in-1 electronics kit.
You can see it on the right side of this 1972 advertisement from Radio Shack. It was a board loaded with electronics, including a meter and speaker, and used pre-cut wires and spring terminals to virtually assemble all sorts of cool projects. I annoyed my family by creating a household radio station, harassed the pets with a sound synthesizer, and amused myself endlessly with a lot of trial-and-error spaghetti wirings before I really understood what was going on. But in the process of doing so, and by scribbling notes all over the big manual’s pages, I developed the knowledge of electronics that eventually helped land my first professional job (with Texas Instruments) and cultivated a deep love for tinkering that has never died.
As a parent I wanted to share the same excitement of self-discovery with my kids, and was saddened that, although they’re just as geeky as I am, they have never shown the same kind of curiosity. I think we still have a largely-unused experimenter’s kit gathering dust somewhere in storage… waiting for grandchildren?
I’m concerned that societal changes since my childhood have reduced interest in this sort of activity. Or maybe kit assembly was more of a niche than I’ve acknowledged. Either way, as manufacturing increasingly abandons expensive regions like the United States, a technical void is left that’s looking to be filled by something new. Enter self-manufacturing.
The thought is that, at some point, many advanced products could be purchased in kit form for minor user assembly or even mostly manufactured at home. This could include cell phones and other common electronics appliances.
The plastic component aspect is already there. Anyone with access to 3D design services can submit custom part files to build-on-demand services like Shapeways. For those who want to bring this closer to home, 3D “printers” continue to decline in price and improve in capability.
This advent not only opens up the area of customization, but serves repair and maintenance needs by enabling ad hoc creation of parts long discontinued by original manufacturers… extending the lives of products otherwise rendered frustratingly useless by simple part failures. Haven’t we all been there? My trusty QA50 suffered a few mishaps like broken fenders and such. There’s a nice little niche aftermarket for it now, but there was a stretch where getting replacements was next to impossible… so my motorbike suffered. Note that even the aftermarket web page shows unavailable parts. Imagine being able to rig these up yourself! Long tail economics at its finest.
And the possibilities go beyond basic parts, too. Exciting developments in printing electronics by extending ink jet technology are well underway and promise to blow the doors off conventional circuit card manufacturing.
The common scenario cited starts with a customer using an online configurator to select and mash-up the features of a desired product. The configurator would then select (or even design on-the-fly) the necessary circuitry. This would then be coupled with a custom casing and other components. The result could be ordered online as a simple-to-assemble kit or downloaded to the customer’s own home manufacturing setup.
All indicators point to us being right on the threshold of this being practical, at least for early adopters. But there are potential pitfalls. In the sort of world envisioned here, money would be made in three main areas: raw materials, designs, and support services. The margins tend to be low for the first, although supply and demand could change that if self-manufacturing takes off. But design revenue depends on intellectual property (IP) protections, and that’s an increasingly bothersome issue these days. Consumers typically fail to see value in IP and think that “soft” items should be free. How will design providers protect their products and services?
I would expect the same sort of underground sharing of files for self-manufacturing purposes that we presently see with music. The easy answer is that, ultimately, the design work will be mostly open source and revenue will be relegated to raw materials and services that aren’t as subject to hijacking (delivery, equipment repair, etc). The music industry still has not successfully transitioned to such a model yet though so this is questionable for any other ventures with similar vulnerabilities.
Coders won’t be left out of this future. Operating systems and applications will still be needed, and in self-manufacturing circles I expect Linux and related open source tools to play a huge role. In my opinion, MeeGo for one is very well-suited for success here.
Regardless of any hurdles, self-manufacturing is coming. If you doubt, attend events such as the Open Hardware Summit (15 September 2011 in New York City) and prepare to be amazed. There may even be Make-type events in your area… check around if you’re interested! And I can’t wait to see what a new wave of device-hacking teenagers cobbles up…