The Factory Everywhere: The present and future of distributed manufacturing

The concept of distributed manufacturing has been around for a few years now. The vision of a world in which more and more everyday goods can be personalised and manufactured on demand within miles (or even metres) of their point of use, and where more and more of us have access to the tools to make high performance products for ourselves, is powerful.

To refer to it as a Industrial Revolution in the making isn’t hyperbole: it has very real economic, social and environmental implications. But after the hype around 3D printing has passed, and as makerspaces continue to pop up, how close are we really to distributed manufacturing becoming mainstream, and what does that reality look like?

This is  a topic close to both of our organisations’ hearts - distributed manufacturing is central to the WikiHouse model, and here at Nesta we’ve produced an Open Dataset of UK makerspaces as part of our work on digital making.

To answer some of the most pressing questions - what should policy look like, what infrastructure do we need, and what will the services and industries of the future look like? - we brought together researchers, policymakers and industry at a roundtable at Nesta last month and present some of our findings below.

Unsurprisingly, the discussions that came out can’t easily be summarised in one blog post. Distributed manufacturing is challenging - and interesting - because of its complexity, and because it calls into question characteristics of our economy that we have come to take for granted, from marketing to culture, from regulation to ownership.

Nonetheless, there were four key takeaways which emerged from our discussions.

1. We need to explore what we mean by distributed manufacturing...

In reality, distributed manufacturing is not one thing. There are myriad terms (“distributed manufacturing”, “distributed production”, “redistributed manufacturing”, “local manufacturing”, “decentralised manufacturing”) often confused with each other and all with slightly different meanings. One overall term can’t capture all the possible interpretations of what it is that actually gets ‘distributed’.

Many individuals and organisations will use distributed manufacturing, but still rely on centralised material supply chains. Some will unlock amateur or semi-professional economies. In other cases, it’s about small, local “micro-factories”.

And crucially, models of distributed manufacturing don’t necessarily infer distributed ownership. It is perfectly possible for networks of local “micro-factories” to be entirely owned by one company.

Finally, even the term ‘distributed’ is highly relative - it may range from meaning “within the home” to “within the neighbourhood” to “within the region”, or simply “in the country”.

Similarly, we are also being forced to look harder at what we mean by “manufacturing”. The process of making, once it has been unpacked from the black box of the Fordist supply chain and the consumer economy it feeds, is an infinitely diverse spectrum of activity.

In some contexts it might require products to be manufactured from start to finish within a geographical space (all the way from sourcing materials, tools and labour to selling the product). In other contexts, it might include only part of that journey, for example if the materials are sourced or the product is assembled beyond the geographical space.

… and why we want it

Furthermore, we must really know why - in different contexts - we want to develop distributed manufacturing. It offers benefits that reach far beyond ‘efficiency’ or the bottom line. The main reasons are:

  • Environmental. Not just reducing emissions from transportation, but also enabling a truly circular economy, where instead of mining, manufacturing and throwing away, parts can me made, re-made and recycled within the last mile.
  • Economic.  For example, boosting local industry and economic growth or to provide training, jobs and apprenticeships.
  • Socio-cultural. Nurturing people’s skills, hobbies, interests, entrepreneurial ambitions, or simply their everyday resilience. The depth of this is neatly captured by a popular slogan of the open source hardware movement: ‘If you can’t mend it, you don’t own it.’
  • Disintermediation. Giving consumers or small companies the agency to break their dependence on large, one-size-fits all monopolies or costly models.

Different people, organisations, sectors and industries will place differing importance on these benefit versus others. This context-specific understanding of distributed manufacturing is essential, from homes to clothes to prosthetics.

2. We need policy and infrastructure that is fit for purpose.

The making and digitisation of ‘stuff’ also requires the digitisation of the frameworks that govern and regulate it. The problem is that to a large extent, the policy instruments we still use today to govern industrial production were created for the last industrial revolution – long before computers or the web. They’re just too rigid and too resource intensive to be effective in a digital world.

As new industrial paradigms emerge, government and institutions also need to evolve – to be ready to govern and support the digital making economy, from new regulatory tools and open data and knowledge platforms to new kinds of consumer protection.

Central to this is the need for strategic infrastructure investment. The distributed making economy will only be as strong as the infrastructure it runs on: namely, the web. If we really are in the early years of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’, then the digital platforms and common infrastructures that it runs on are the 21st century equivalent of the canals, roads and railways of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Tech startups and their investors cannot – and should not – build these common digital infrastructures alone. All of us, as advocates, have a choice: to take the lead, collaborate to build common infrastructures and standards now, and reap the rewards later; or to miss the boat, and wait for a private company to centralise and own the distributed manufacturing economy.

In short, we must ensure we move from a proprietary “winner-takes-all” model to one in which the benefits of new paradigms can be shared across the whole economy.

3. If change is coming, we need to bring everyone along.

As distributed manufacturing begins to move from these years of early experimentation to mainstream commercial scalability, one the things most likely to stop us all making the most of it is fear. So as well as addressing digital exclusion across society as a whole, and clearly communicating to the public both the opportunities and the threats of distributed digital manufacturing, it is crucial that we get existing industry incumbents on board with the transition.

This is not a competition between centralised and decentralised, it’s a fundamental shift, like moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy. There are opportunities for partnerships and hybrid models that will benefit both sides as the future is reimagined.  Part of this will be finding where the pain points of existing industry lie, then directly exploring how distributed solutions can address those points, creating meaningful partnerships that encourage existing industry to get on board and champion the shift.

It’s also important to establish certain policies and principles that take risks (such as IP issues) off the table, allowing incumbents to explore and learn from the future, rather than feel the need to fight it. For example, for distribution to be effective it will need to have a supportive framework in place that allows members of the network to share information and data safely. By establishing protocols and agreements it sets the expectations from the beginning, reassuring new participants that there is a clear plan in case information is violated in anyway.

4. It’s time to think hard about what distributed digital manufacturing means for the future of work.

Almost every aspect of the notion of work that we inherited from the 20th century was aligned around the centralised factory. Humans as parts of a larger machine, whether that machine was the bureaucracy of the state or the Fordist supply chain. It was a world where production was separated from consumption, leisure from work, blue collar white collar, education from employment, where you got a job for life, and a pension at the end.

Undoubtedly, distributed manufacturing has incredibly exciting potential to afford to everyone a level of capability, agency, autonomy and creativity that was inconceivable to our parents’ generation. It really does feel like an opportunity to shape industrial production around humans, instead of the other way around: to realise a very practical literal form of democracy - putting the power of production into the hands of the many small rather than the few large.

However, it potentially also comes at a cost - in job security and stability. There are, unquestionably, a thousand indirect consequences that come along with the direct intended purpose. If we’re going to understand where we’re headed, we need to paint –and prototype – a new vision of ‘the Good Life’ - the social contract. If the factory of the future is everywhere, we should at least start thinking now about how we can make it a factory that all of us will want to work in.

What Next?

There are clearly many ways to move forward with the proposed shift from a centralised to a distributed model of manufacturing. There’s a growing research community in this area, which should be supported so that we can understand the current landscape. Existing stakeholders in all types of manufacturing, and leaders from old and new industry, must be started and continued. Government must start to think strategically about how it can develop policies and infrastructure fit for such a paradigm shift. And we must all champion the potential of distributed manufacturing - while being vigilant to the risks it entails - so that the general public is on board.


Note: Nesta has committed to funding the Wikihouse Foundation £50,000 to support the development of the OpenChain, the first fully digitised supply chain for housebuilding. As part of our partnership with the Wikihouse Foundation, we are holding three workshops on topics of mutual interest over the course of the year. Our workshop on distributed manufacturing was the first of these. Stay tuned for more blogs from further workshops.  

Image: Creative Commons / Wikihouse Foundation



Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Matt was a senior researcher working on the collaborative economy and digital social innovation.

View profile

Alastair Parvin

Alastair Parvin is a strategic designer and the co-founder of WikiHouse Foundation. He is currently working on better housing systems, open source design, distributed production, and h…

Harry Knight

Originally from Christchurch, New Zealand, Harry now works with the WikiHouse Foundation as their community and consortium host (amongst other things). Before moving to London Harry co…