If you believe the pundits, America doesn’t make anything anymore—you just won’t find “Made in the U.S.A.” on shirt tags, electronics, or other goods. But the truth, according to entrepreneur and Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson, is that America is going through a manufacturing renaissance. It just doesn’t look the same as it did in the aftermath of World War II. In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Anderson argues that 3-D printing, online design tools, and funding from crowdsourcing websites such as Kickstarter will propel America’s economy going forward. U.S. News spoke with Anderson about the role individuals and small businesses will play in manufacturing. Excerpts:
What’s the main advantage of individuals getting involved in manufacturing using the Internet?
When you do things in such a public way, you quickly find people who can help and accelerate projects, turning them from little ones into big ones. As the tools get easier, there’s more people like you doing it, more people who are inspired to get involved. What ends up happening is the things we’re making are more world-changing. The fact is it used to be hard to make stuff. If you wanted to make something out of metal, you’d have to have access to molding and welding tools and things like that. That’s not the case anymore.
So instead of having thousands of people reinventing the wheel in their garages, we have even more people making unique things?
Rather than doing the same thing over and over and having people teach themselves the hard stuff, we can work together to do things that have never been done before. We’re taking the workshops of the world and sharing that in public.
Many American students don’t have the math and science skills to understand this kind of thing. Is becoming a “maker” something that should and will be taught in schools?
It is the most important question for our country, and the great thing about the Internet is it offers an alternative to formal education. There are people online teaching themselves and there’s people teaching each other. But formal education has been going in the wrong direction for decades. We still have a couple shop classes, but as manufacturing jobs left the country, they became less relevant and were cut. Now, we have machine tools that are basically extensions of the computer. We don’t need shop classes, but we need design classes. Suddenly, classes like home economics have become much more relevant, only we’re teaching for a screen generation. Suddenly, there’s the opportunity for classes like that to be reinvented in a 21st century design curriculum.
Is being able to design and manufacture products a vital skill going forward? Can anyone do this?
Yes, there’s a maker in all of us, but a lot of us get eliminated when things turn hard. If you have to use a metal lathe, that eliminates most people. Now that we have machines that can do the actual building—we’ve seen what happens when you make book publishing as easy as pushing a button—suddenly you have an explosion of creativity. If we’re turning manufacturing into something as simple as building a webpage, that lowers the barrier to entry and encourages a huge amount of participation and creativity. Kids already understand how video games work—they understand 3-D spaces and polygons and creating things. They play Minecraft—these things are hardwired in them.
Will the “makers revolution” kill certain industries?
I look at the Web analogy and what happened with Hollywood. What the Web did was lowered the barriers to entry for filmmaking—you have a huge explosion of people doing it. We didn’t have the end of blockbuster movies, but we had an end of the monopoly of blockbusters. The Web is perhaps the first marketplace where amateurs and professionals are on even footing. You spend some of your time in each world. You go to YouTube for things that are amateur and Hollywood for things that are more professional. We find that it kind of makes for a more diverse marketplace. I think you’ll see the same thing with physical goods. Traditional manufacturing will become better because they’ll be able to take the ideas of new entrepreneurs and make their ideas realities more quickly.
What education is necessary for the makers revolution?
I don’t think you need either [an engineering or an M.B.A.] degree—that’s the beauty of this. When you make the tools so easy and the barriers to entry so low, you take the need for credentials out of the equation. If you can build a community and attract people to the project and manage that community, you can be successful.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.