I have just caught up on the group discussion and I am excited to see that momentum is gathering. Over the years I have become increasingly concerned at the way that manufacturing—be that in a classical sense or in an area such as software engineering—would appear to have become something that is seen as not high enough up the value chain the UK, and perhaps even the West, and to be done elsewhere where it can be done for less. Or at best as part of our past, a legacy activity and not to be invested in.
My professional background is in open source software and more recently open source hardware. Open source is interesting as the design outputs, such as the source code to computer software or blueprints to a car, are made available to all at zero cost. Sound slightly mad? Well, within a few years of betting a large part of its future on Linux-related services, IBM was generating double the revenue from open source than from its entire patent portfolio.
We are at a much earlier stage with open source hardware, but there are similar opportunities to be had in seemingly "giving away" something, i.e. design. With software the opportunity is often in sale of services and support, and with hardware it may be reduced innovation costs — although this is by no means the full story.
Earlier this year another Fellow, Paul Downey, and I were winners of a Catalyst grant which is being used towards hosting costs for SolderPad — a place to share, discover and collaborate on electronic projects. One of the visions we have for SolderPad is to facilitate global design and local manufacture, and a principle goal is to make it easier for people to collaborate on the design of open source electronics hardware. There are obvious benefits for non-commercial uses, such as in education. However, it's important to recognise that open source and business are not mutually exclusive — quite the contrary, and open source creates opportunities for microenterprise up to global scale business.
You can find out more about open source hardware via an introductory article (PDF) I wrote, and in another on energy-efficient and renewable technologies (PDF) I briefly cover two uses of open source to enable novel approaches to specific manufacturing challenges.
I already feel guilty for having thrown in those PDF links, however, some further related reading:
I see a real opportunity to reinvigorate manufacturing through global collaboration based on peer networks for design and sharing skills.Is there some way that the RSA could play a part? Perhaps there is an opportunity here to engage in thought leadership. I'd be very interested to hear the thoughts of other Fellows.