Computers and associated equipment have made great inroads in everything from the gathering of marketing information for the design of products, through the design and manufacturing processes, to marketing and sales. But the first computer I came in contact with was in the early 1960’s, when I at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, It was a large IBM mainframe that helped us with structural analysis and other such tasks. That was 50 years ago. So such developments as Computer Aided Design, Computer Controlled Machining centers, and Big Data did not happen instantly.
Among those who study the history of technology, it is often said that new technologies require 50 years to develop into something approaching their final stage. I think that is an understatement in the case of digital electronics, and that present developments, although heady indeed, are far from the final answer. The proliferation of companies, web information, and various levels of fun and games on the internet will settle down, and the quality will increase. Many internet activities, both software and related hardware, are still catering to early adopters. I am relatively new to social networking, but of the people I am linked to, only a few are very active, admittedly some hyper. And in my opinion, the internet is definitely accumulating junk, perhaps exponentially, which is inevitable as long as it costs nothing to put information on it, and there is neither an incentive to delete anything, nor people responsible for doing so.
In particular, while reading his book, I wondered about the enthusiasm that people like Anderson have for the democratization of design, in which each of us, equipped with our powerful low-cost 3d printers and easy-to-use CAD system, are going to design and make our own products, backed by crowd sourcing, which will then allow us to launch brilliantly successful businesses. Certainly so-called additive manufacture will play an increasing role in the manufacture of prototypes, parts best made by the process, and small runs of parts. But simply being able to shape our own parts on a computer and manufacture them, does not make us good designers. Such things as emotional response to products, human and cultural fit, taste, and good judgment about such things as serviceability and lifetime are important. Both intrinsic and extrinsic knowledge are needed, and one gains them through time and experience. And perhaps there is a bit of talent involved.
Nor is handling any sort of funding or successfully starting a business as straight forward as many would like. There is an unfortunate tendency for people who have been successful in such things to sound the “jump in, the water’s fine” call, and not talk about the sharks.
I have probably always been what Anderson defines as a maker, although I lean toward hardware (see photo of my wife's new ant). I have quite a bit of experience with design and manufacturing in both industry and academia and consider myself a good designer of things with which I have had experience. But I have also put in many hours working with cars, and when it comes time for a family car, I would rather a large company with an outstanding track record produce it for me. And if purchasing a chair for my living room, I would rather choose among products designed by people with a lot of practice at making comfortable ones (not me), and unusual visual sensitivity. Also, individuals cannot produce things such as airplanes, highways, oil tankers, or high speed trains. Perhaps not even high quality smart phones or wrist watches. Or for that matter, athletic shoes or socks. I believe the common saying that design is a team sport, and outstanding teams usually have outstanding players.
And I don’t think mass production is going to go away. It will be increasingly automated (unless unions return) and it will include more flexibility, but as Anderson admits, there is great benefit to the costs that can be achieved by investing in tooling which will be used to produce a large number of identical copies, and quality can be obtained through large numbers. And there is my favorite justification —the convenience of using products by people other than the designer.