DIY Ready To Scale?

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Kevin Kelly, senior maverick at Wired, has his doubts on this. David Li, the guy who opened up the first maker / hacker space in China, interviewed Kevin at the MakerFaire in Shenzen. Being asked if open source and DIY products will replace or challenge traditional mass prodcution Kelly replied very hesistant: “DIY and open source products enhance the number of possibilities and this by itself is a very good and positive thing. But today I cannot foresee any scenario that DIY and/or open source products will ever vanish mass production for consumer and/or industrial goods or even challenge it in a significant way.” A bear hug for the world capitol of mass production in electronics, an embarrassment for the fairly new and quickly growing community of young innovators which was just recently ennobled by none less than the Chinese Prime Minister himself. China’s new innovators embody the DIY culture and I do believe that their biggest gathering and get together has a very specific reason to take place in the world centre for mass manufacturing – and this reason is explicitly mass manufacturing. So what happened when DIY and mass manufacturing meet? Is Kevin Kelly wrong?

It was my third visit to Shenzen, the second one in this year. You can almost see the city changing during a three month period. And it was my second visit to a MakerFaire. The first one I attended was in Accra, Ghana, West Africa. It was the first African MakerFaire and it was in 2009. In Accra everything was about prototyping. Prototyping products which eventually would improve the daily lives of the people. We saw prototypes such as a cooler for tomatoes or an irrigation system for farmers or clothes made out of old plastic bags and newspapers. A broad variety of daily needs. In Shenzen there weren’t any prototypes – almost each and every showcased DIY product and gadget was ready for mass production.

Shenzhen was built from scratch exactly for the reason of mass production. Mass production of electronics. It became well-known as THE copy-cat center of the world – but this is changing rapidly. Not only do the manufacturing lines change towards more qualitative products, e.g. Leica is supplying its objectives and lenses for the Chinese version of the gopro camera, we also see the rise of an entire new service industry around the manufacturing processes: consultants helping people to design their manufacturing outlets – very flexible, very fast and still very cheap. You basically come with a prototype and they design the facilities or adjust existing ones. It’s what’s called an “absorptive state” – it’s getting better and better at combining its own local capabilities and infrastructure with foreign technologies and knowledge. And when you walk around in the electronic malls in Shenzhen you experience the international business crowd looking out for exactly this. Basically each vendor in the mall is associated with at least one or two manufacturers. And this is the feeling I had when I strolled around at the MakerFaire in the midst of Hardware City – the district in which most of the multinational IT hardware companies have their offices. The only difference: the international business crowd at MakerFaire were the young makers. Unlike in many other MakerFaires the DIY spirit and the presence of art-tech mash-ups were lacking. Instead the makers were equipped with order sheets and product catalogs – the things I saw most were robots, drones and 3D-printers. And I saw guys from the manufacturing firms walking around and looking for interesting prototypes ready for their mass production units. And at quite some office buildings you could see the logos of international accelerators.

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Kevin Kelly (left) interviewed by David Li

So coming back to Kevin Kelly – yes, I’d argue he is wrong. What I’ve seen in Shenzhen is “Maker to Market” – fully supported and in line with the Chinese government claims. What this basically means is that “weird prototypes and gadgets” which were developed in the grassroots communities of hacker and maker spaces in Shanghai and Shenzhen and elsewhere now become commercial products.

And what you can also already sense and already see in Shenzhen – many of these young makers and innovators set up their own companies. They want to become entrepreneurs. This will certainly fuel Shenzen’s economy further and add a new component to its industrial landscape. And when you walk through OCT Loft, a very surprising quarter of Shenzhen (at least to me), you’ll get a sense of what this means … just click through the pict below and you feel you are in Amsterdam, Berlin or Barcelona. OCT Loft – surprise, surprise – is also home of the first maker space in Shenzhen: Chaihuo – the cell and first office of seeed studio. And it’s also the place where the first Shenzhen MakerFaire took place. Seeed studio in turn is the main sponsor and organizer of the Shenzhen MakerFaire and the world’s biggest online platform selling everything what maker need. Mostly open source hardware components – made by makers for makers. And with their own production facilities – which are open and transparent – they are closing the gap between prototype and mass production by manufacturing up to 1000 pieces.

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OCT Loft in Shenzen

Currently the “Maker to Market” products are quite simple – in comparison to sophisticated and specialized technologies – and they are mostly built on open hardware technologies such as Arduino and low cost labour force. But having seen the transformation in Shenzhen’s industry in the last decade it’s hard to imagine that it will STOP here. And the first glimpses we could catch already: students from Hunan University showcased an electric car that runs 300 km per charge. Others showed a fuel-efficient vehicle which could run 1000 km with 1l of gasoline. And this vehicle only scored second best in a Honda competition for fuel-efficient cars. The big companies have realized the potential of the makers – and they are embracing it. Sony and Samsung for example have opened their research labs for the makers in Beijing. A bold move.

But does all this mean at a wider level that the manufacturing practices in Shenzhen, in the Guandong region and in entire China will even get worse? More unfair pay and harsh working conditions in the factories? Already many strikes for better salaries are going on and Foxconn, one of the MakerFaire’s main sponsors, is subject to interrogation about the working conditions in its factories. And the question of what kind of impact these factories have on the environment (air, water, nature, health …) isn’t part of a public debate yet. This opens a wide area for speculation.

For me the Shenzhen MakerFaire shined a light on the potential of the DIY ecosystem and ways to move forward, the political regimes which more or less regulates it, the infrastructures which supports it, the forms of work that drive it and the culture and history that shape it.

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