Photo by James Fallows | The Atlantic
Photo by James Fallows | The Atlantic

In a series of articles titled “Why the Maker Movement Matters,” The Atlantic author James Fallows examines the movement in America and attempts to dispel the idea that it’s “fringe and hobby-minded, artsy-and-craftsy and hip.” In doing so, he looks at serious ventures that embrace the maker sensibility, including Louisville’s own FirstBuild.

“When people say, ‘Americans don’t make things any more,’ you should know: Actually, they do. In Louisville …” writes Fallows.

He says in light of the declining manufacturing economy and the rise of “Made in China,” it’s easy to despair for the industry. But he says, “Most Americans think the situation is worse than it really is.”

Fallows asserts new technologies that have allowed for advances in manufacturing tools like 3-D printers and laser cutters have given rise to new ways of manufacturing and made places like FirstBuild possible.

Fallows spoke to Venkat Venkatakrishnan, the CEO of FirstBuild. The company is the microfactory and makerspace created by GE as a subsidiary of its appliance division and as an effort to bring the maker spirit to its appliance design process. Chinese company Haier recently acquired GE Appliances and FirstBuild.

Venkatakrishnan tells Fallows, “Now you can get a circuit board mill for $8,000. If you are looking for a circuit board for an appliance, earlier the only chance of getting it was from China. Today I can make boards here and ship them out quickly. Similarly with laser cutters — not big ones but small ones, where I can cut metal right here. It’s a huge advantage, and these things did not exist ten years ago. In those days you couldn’t hack the kind of creative solutions we are seeing now.”

Typically an appliance takes years to go from design to market, but at FirstBuild, that time can be cut down to a matter of a few months.

“Jeff’s challenge to us (this is Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE) was, make it shorter,” says Venkatakrishnan. “If it takes four years — for the feasibility studies, and the budget cycles, and the design and production — by the time you get to market, the technologies have changed, the market has shifted. So Jeff asked us what we could do to shrink the time, to get us on the path from years to months.”

Instead of producing thousands in a factory run, with a potential for very expensive mistakes, FirstBuild thinks in terms of hundreds or less. When it comes to smaller runs, less caution needs to be applied.

Fallows compares this to the difference between there being four TV channels in the 1970s to hundreds in the present day. Edgy, ambitious shows like “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” might not have been made in the 1970s where networks had to make extremely calculated decisions about their lineups. More options allow creators to take greater risks.

FirstBuild doesn’t just benefit from the dropping cost and greater diversity and skill of advanced manufacturing tools, but also from our rising comfort and understanding of the digital world. FirstBuild takes advantage of crowd-funding, crowd-sourcing and open-source coding and design.

Fallows notes that FirstBuild is open to the community, particularly the University of Louisville community.

“It’s like a manufacturing library,” Venkatakrishnan tells him, with production equipment open for shared use. “The ‘books’ are available. We’re not going to read them to you, but you can find them here.”

Products developed at FirstBuild included the Opal nugget ice maker, which is the ninth most funded project on Indiegogo, and a high-speed cold brew coffee maker.

Venkatakrishnan says if a product seems destined to sell more than 1,000 units, they send it to “the mothership” —  Appliance Park.

“We are like the pirates, and Appliance Park is the navy,” he says. “We’re the agile, exploring part of the empire. If we find something valuable, we call in the navy. Meanwhile, we explore.”

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