Libraries and the Democratization of Manufacturing

Chris Anderson's (Wired Magazine’s editor-in-chief and author of The Long Tail) articles are always worth reading, but his latest: “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits," is especially interesting in its implications for libraries and librarians.

For centuries, libraries have been committed to democratizing access to information (a.k.a. bits to use Anderson’s metaphor).  Along with schools, libraries were arguably the only such institutions before the advent of the Internet. For the most part though, libraries prudently avoided staking out a position on the appropriate distribution of physical goods (i.e. atoms to continue Anderson’s metaphor). Trying to democratize the “means of production” would have landed us in hot water politically, and, besides, we didn’t have access to the resources necessary to take on such an ambitious project at a significant scale. However, libraries have been facilitating access to computers as well as  other tools and machines on a limited scale for several decades now,  so the ideas below aren’t entirely new.

 Photo taken by TechShop and made available for use under CC Share-alike license

As Anderson makes clear, trends in technology and business might make Marx’s dreams of equal access to manufacturing technologies a reality without the need for violent revolution.  Frustrated tinkerers and entrepreneurs now have an outlet for their creativity if they have a computer, Internet access and time to teach themselves free 3D modeling software such as Google SketchUp or CadSoft Eagle. If you can create a digital rendition of an idea, there are now hundreds of factories in the U.S. and abroad willing to turn your model into a product and ship it back to you and your customers. These factories charge a price of course, but it’s much cheaper than buying your own equipment, housing it, running it and maintaining it. However, if you do want control over the entire process, the prices of 3d printers, milling machines and other high-end manufacturing machines tools have been declining quickly in recent years, so you could buy your own tools or rent access to them at a facility such as TechShop.

Where do libraries fit in?

While the costs of manufacturing in small quantities are dropping, they’re still significant. To build a prototype and fill orders, a would-be entrepreneur needs a computer, Internet access, and access to manufacturing equipment (or money to buy access to someone else’s equipment).

Libraries could further reduce start-up costs for small manufacturers by:

  • Creating regional coalitions dedicated to building community manufacturing centers (or enticing a local branch of an existing company such as TechShop).
  • Libraries can install the necessary 3D modeling software on library computers and offer classes on their use if there’s enough demand.
  • Librarians can work with local foundations and funding agencies to find or create entrepreneurial micro-grants that defray the initial prototyping, marketing, training and legal costs, as well as the other expenses encountered by new businesses.