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24 May 2017

Will all manufacturers become makers?

Guest blog: 'Hello Shenzhen' maker resident Ross Atkin looks back at his time in Shenzhen to explore what the UK manufacturing industry could learn from the unique Chinese ecosystem

Showing at the Rome Maker Faire alongside 600 other international exhibitors to over 100,000 visitors, it is difficult not to feel part of something special. But when the red and blue bunting and ‘Make MagazineTM’ robot icons are packed off for another continent, it is easy to wonder if there really is a movement that would mean anything if the events stopped.

Playing with Crafty Robots at Maker Faire Rome

On the first day of my British Council residency in Shenzhen I found myself having to do something I realised I had never done - explain what the Maker Movement was - to the BBC’s Jennifer Pak [her report starts at 9m:30s]. Initially I struggled, not being able to get past “go to the Maker Faire and you will see”. Next I grasped for technology, talking about 3D printers and open-source electronics. Finally I managed to say something coherent by quoting Daniel Charny and talking about the Maker Movement as a “community of practice”. I realised that this community, scattered across the world, shared two things in common. Most obvious is an interest in a particular basket of technologies, many of which afford new ways to make things. More interesting is an attitude of openness and collaboration that stands in stark contrast to how things are usually made in industry.

Jennifer Pak Interviewing Hello Shenzhen residents Helen Leigh and Martin Goodfellow

In the UK, open and collaborative are not words many people would use to describe the manufacturing industry. Government industrial strategy in the 1970s deliberately sought to vertically integrate manufacturing companies and to move them out of cities. Subsequent decades of a strong pound ensured it was the companies best at creating and guarding intellectual property that were able to remain competitive enough to flourish.

As a Dyson Design Engineer I worked in a factory building, vacated by the transfer of production to Malaysia, thirty miles from the nearest city with fingerprint access that kept everyone, including even other non-engineering employees, out. We never worked with anyone outside that building. It was as far from open and collaborative as you could get.

If this is how we build physical technology in the UK, the way we build digital technology, especially in big cities, could not be more different. A weekday evening in London offers a choice of meet ups where you can hear engineers sharing their knowledge, processes and tools with the community. There is a dense network of agencies large and small, startups and freelancers who come together on project-by-project bases. Open source tools and communication over the internet form the foundation on which the world is built.

In Shenzhen, at the centre of the greatest concentration of manufacturing capability ever assembled in human history, I saw what this culture looks like when applied to manufacturing. From Shenzhen the whole of the Pearl River Delta supply chain is accessible. In the Huaqiangbei electronics market it is even laid out for anyone to browse. Urban villages like Sha Wei function like porous factories as products move between different stages of manufacture through the streets. The lack of intellectual property rights makes all design open source and has led to the “Shanzai" model of design innovation. Shenzhen sucks people who want to make things in this way from all over the world. Freelance mechanical and electrical engineers are as common, and as international, as freelance software developers in London. Designing and manufacturing a physical product in Shenzhen is as quick and easy as building and launching an app in London. Even if they’ve never heard of the maker movement people in Shenzhen are signed up to the ethos.

Interactive toys designed in the International Maker Centre in Shenzhen

The real question is, is this a phenomenon confined to the unique concentration of electronics manufacture in the Pearl River Delta or is this the future of manufacturing everywhere?

For many engineers in Europe and the US, the maker movement currently represents recreation from their day job in big, closed vertically integrated companies. With the speed of technological development accelerating ,will working collaboratively, openly and at Shenzhen Speed become the norm for all manufacturers? Can manufacturing culture change quickly enough to cope?

Hello Shenzhen is a bilateral exchange programme connecting makers in the UK and China, supported by the British Council, The Shenzhen Foundation for International Exchange and Cooperation and Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab

Hello Shenzhen is developed in partnership with Liz Corbin, Institute of Making, University College London

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

With thanks to Kickstarter for their in-kind support

Hello Shenzhen is the next iteration of the Shenzhen Foundation for International Exchange and Cooperation’s flagship programme Makers@World