A friend does woodworking in his garage as both a hobby and a pragmatic response to a century old house that needs endless repairs. His workshop is itself an expression of his resourcefulness. His work benches are made from salvaged high quality hardwood pulled from a bowling alley that was being torn down. The interior plywood wall treatment is also part of the earthquake shear wall structural retrofit of the house.
He and his wife came for dinner and afterwards we all walked down to a launch party of a new product. Friends from MIT had been working on simple tools that would allow amateur makers to do higher quality work with the aid of software.
Shaper is a wood router that’s guided by tech. It allows intricate designs to be created by people with lower skill sets. It also boosts the capabilities of people who are already pretty good wood workers. Similar DIY freeware “competitors” like Maslow are increasingly accessible to larger populations at ever lower price points. It won’t be long before Home Depot and Lowe’s will carry modified versions of these products in the same way drones have made it to Costco. The hard core maker crowd may be downloading software and building their own 3D printers from parts sourced on Amazon, but the rest of the population will be getting prepackaged versions at Walmart in a few years.
With practice and passion just about anyone with basic home equipment can build a wide range of high quality products. On the one hand many more people will be able to become “prosumers” who simultaneously produce and consume things in the economy. This will blur the lines of industrial production. Products like Shaper may signal a return to mom and pop hyper local cottage industries. On the other hand, the usual global suppliers of bulk commodities that fill our big box stores will use the same technology to goose production of mass market items.
The next day I found myself at Ikea buying some cabinets for a friend. The experience of driving to such a place and roaming the warehouse corridors in search of a particular item was in stark contrast to the maker environment of garage workshops. Most of the products on offer at Ikea could be made at home – and made better – rather than manufactured on the other side of the planet and shipped to massive retail facilities.
Last summer I bought raised garden beds made by some local kids in their grandad’s garage. The quality of their work was higher than similar products from the big box store, but the price was the same. And I much prefer giving my money directly to the folks who live in town.
I spent a long weekend at a friend’s house helping him renovate his kitchen. Once we had removed the old tiles a professional arrived to measure the counters for new quartz tops. He used a special laser tool to carefully map the exact shape of the kitchen and sent the digital information to the fabrication shop. This device improves accuracy, speeds up the manufacturing process, eliminates costly mistakes, and reduces the need for physical templates to be carried back to the shop. It also reduces the need for human labor. When I had my counters installed fifteen years ago a crew of three guys came to measure out the kitchen by hand. Now one guy with a bit of training and the right machine can do the same job on his own a lot faster. Technology is shaping the labor market in ways we can’t yet predict. This isn’t a new phenomenon. But it is a novel twist on an existing dynamic. It’s going to be interesting to see how society responds to all the complex interactions as things play out.