Micro Manufacturing, Third Wave Style…Perfect for Worker Coops?

In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New BitsPhoto: Dan Winters

By Chris Anderson

SolidarityEconomy.net via Wired Magazine

Jan. 25, 2010 – In an age of open source, custom-fabricated, DIY product design, all you need to conquer the world is a brilliant idea.
Photo: Dan Winters

The door of a dry-cleaner-size storefront in an industrial park in Wareham, Massachusetts, an hour south of Boston, might not look like a portal to the future of American manufacturing, but it is. This is the headquarters of Local Motors, the first open source car company to reach production. Step inside and the office reveals itself as a mind-blowing example of the power of micro-factories.

In June, Local Motors will officially release the Rally Fighter, a $50,000 off-road (but street-legal) racer. The design was crowdsourced, as was the selection of mostly off-the-shelf components, and the final assembly will be done by the customers themselves in local assembly centers as part of a “build experience.” Several more designs are in the pipeline, and the company says it can take a new vehicle from sketch to market in 18 months, about the time it takes Detroit to change the specs on some door trim. Each design is released under a share-friendly Creative Commons license, and customers are encouraged to enhance the designs and produce their own components that they can sell to their peers.

The Rally Fighter was prototyped in the workshop at the back of the Wareham office, but manufacturing muscle also came from Factory Five Racing, a kit-car company and Local Motors investor located just down the road. Of course, the kit-car business has been around for decades, standing as a proof of concept for how small manufacturing can work in the car industry. Kit cars combine hand-welded steel tube chassis and fiberglass bodies with stock engines and accessories. Amateurs assemble the cars at their homes, which exempts the vehicles from many regulatory restrictions (similar to home-built experimental aircraft). Factory Five has sold about 8,000 kits to date.

One problem with the kit-car business, though, is that the vehicles are typically modeled after famous racing and sports cars, making lawsuits and license fees a constant burden. This makes it hard to profit and limits the industry’s growth, even in the face of the DIY boom.

Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, saw a way around this. His company opted for totally original designs: They don’t evoke classic cars but rather reimagine what a car can be. The Rally Fighter’s body was designed by Local Motors’ community of volunteers and puts the lie to the notion that you can’t create anything good by committee (so long as the community is well managed, well led, and well equipped with tools like 3-D design software and photorealistic rendering technology). The result is a car that puts Detroit to shame.

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