As new technologies go, 3D printing is a bit of an attention hog. In recent years, we’ve seen printers with increasingly amazing capabilities: from ones that extrude plastic to create small objects to machines with lasers that melt metal powder into amazingly intricate jet engine parts.
But the cool factor of 3D printing sometimes obscures a movement in manufacturing that could have an even bigger impact: platforms that help us share ideas, suppliers and marketplaces. That emerging network is why I’m optimistic that 2014 marks the rise of the hardware startup.
Anyone who toured the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas would understand that optimism. The booths for hardware startups dotted the floor and competed for attention with the big manufacturers. As former Wired Editor Chris Anderson, who is now a hardware startup guy himself, noted, “‘Three guys with laptops used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.”
Several years after Anderson made this prediction, a number of factors are converging to make it come true. First, low-cost cloud computing is helping hardware teams, as it becomes embedded in the making process. Even more profound is the impact of small manufacturing operations that allow startups to do rapid prototyping at a fraction of what it used to cost, thanks to globalization and digital markets.
Maker spaces ranging from TechShop to NYC Resistor provide space for people to hone their making skills with access to manufacturing equipment at a fraction of the costs. Adafruit and Seeed Studio will build you a circuit board and ship them, along with DIY parts for more customization; Kickstarter and Indiegogo have made the fundraising process much easier.
Companies like Dragon Innovation help well-funded concepts get from prototype to manufacturing; Quirky makes invention accessible to anyone with a good idea and community support. Incubators like Lemnos Labs are making the hardware garage accessible to a range of entrepreneurs looking to take on well-established manufacturing OEMs in retail, logistics and health.
What I love about hardware startups is their willingness to take on and transform dauntingly complicated industries. Until recently, manufacturing had been almost exclusively the domain of big companies that can afford to build at scale. Now, these makers are turning the tables and showing the value of being both adaptable and close to your customers.
At GE, we’re emboldened by the marriage of the physical and the digital; the industrial and the analytical. We’re seeking out the new generation of inventors who are transforming making as we know it. It’s exciting to think how many burgeoning Thomas Edisons could be liberated to invent something world-changing.
Beth Comstock is Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer for GE. This piece first appeared on LinkedIn.
Photo: opensourceway / Flickr Creative Commons