Make little, make often: how manufacturing could work in the UK

An inspiring call-to-arms from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, founder of Tinker London:

This should be a golden age for UK manufacturing. People are making things everywhere at various scales. In Hackspaces, studios, universities, at home, in their sheds. This is a nation on tinkerers after all. People are coming up with an idea using an Arduino, building a prototype, redesigning the electronics using Fritzing going to Tinkercad to build a box for the prototype. Then they will have the box made by a Makerbot, Ponoko, RazorLab, i-Materialise, Shapeways or other rapid prototyping manufacturers around the world who understand their users want to click a “upload” button and have something sent to them in the post.

That is a different kind of customer for UK manufacturing. It is a digitally-empowered one and to understand him/her, the industry has to adapt. Once that customer has a product they are happy with, they will look for funding through Kickstarter or sell their product online through Etsy or Folsky. (Most of these digital services were not developed in the UK, I hasten to add.)

Make little, Make often: ideas for the future of manufacturing in the UK (via Make)


  1. I’ve been thinking about this since I bought last week a small chinese made amplifier, I wanted to mod it and wondered if someone in the Web had done this, not only as a hobby but rather with some experience and good tech sense, in a small industrious way.  The internal modularity of the device -without delving into it’s more complex features- lends itself to thinkering, meaning that it could be thought as a raw material which can be transformed to n things.
    In some ways -to me-, the article seems to hint at a kind of activity requiring technical expertise to tackle a niche market in an industrious, but not exactly industrial way, hence the make little but often motto.  Like the Arts and Crafts movement, an anti-industrial reaction, but producing tailored tech goods and other commodities.
    I can’t see a future Europe or US competing in any way with China on industrial grounds, except of course, flying cars.

    1. “I can’t see a future Europe or US competing in any way with China on industrial grounds, except of course, flying cars.”

      I think that’s misguided. In the past decade US manufacturing output has gone up, not down. Manufacturing employment has gone down, however, because automation has gotten better and cheaper. That will continue, and wages in China will continue to go up, eroding China’s competitive advantage. China will outsource to places like Africa, and then the process will have run full circle, with no more cheap places to outsource (yes, this will take decades. So?)

      1.  What then?  Latin America?  Back to Europe?  Can labor be completly ditched in favor of automation?  Or will China easily slip back to the agrarian economy?  Maybe we all will.  Robots for everything else.
        China thrives because it’s cheap workforce and I believe they, culturally speaking, will make the necesary sacrifices to keep what they have, as long as it’s needed.  That’s the chinese way.

        1.  I would expect the fraction of people employed in manufacturing to continue to fall (just as the fraction employed in agriculture has), and there’s no particular reason to expect it to be concentrated in any one place.

          And it isn’t about sacrifice.  No one is going to work in a factory if they can make more elsewhere, and no one is going to pay workers higher wages if it’s cheaper to automate their jobs. The manufacturing jobs that do remain are going to go to engineers or skilled machinists.

  2. The only objection I have to this article is the suggestion that this is not a description of the status quo of the UK manufacturing industry.

    I’ve dealt with UK manufacturing companies before, especially for circuit boards. They’re mostly-automated with a room full of people that are paid to do soldering detail work where the paste machines can’t handle it, and specialise in doing runs of 10 to 1000 boards, with prices starting at £10 per board and going down as you scale up. It’s exactly what this article is talking about – small, highly customer-specific projects.

    The industry doesn’t need to adapt. It’s already adapted and is doing fine. It’s highly profitable and servicing the demand of the market. It employs tens of thousands of people across the country.

    The market just isn’t very big. Which should surprise nobody. There’s no great future of a cottage manufacturing industry, there’s just what we have today.

  3. How many people out of a country of around 60 million do you think this will support, 250 000 perhaps maybe a million? As in put a roof over their heads and food on the table and provide a good standard of living

    This is a few middle class hipsters and hackers selling little doohickeys to other hipsters and hackers with high disposable incomes and feeling self important and smug. What are the rest of the population supposed to do while these few people tinker away telling everyone that this is the future? Even if one of these makers comes up with a million unit selling product they will be mass producing it in China so how will that help the rest of Britain?

    When I want a pen I get a Bic made my the 100 million in China. It costs 50p and I can get it from the corner shop or I can buy a box of 50 from an office supplies place and they cost 10p each. I don’t spend ages hunting through websites to find just the perfect design of pen that is made in a production run of 10 and costs 5 quid plus shipping and has exactly the same Bic ball point inside it as the cheapo one. So do 99% of people.

    cf. economies of scale

  4. I find myself reminded of a PDF i read, claiming that when industry went electric it could also have gone distributed. That is, there is no reason why production has to happen in a central location and then shipped. Instead one could distribute the machinery and ship the raw materials.

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