Design Global, Manufacture Local: A New Industrial Revolution?
Vasilis Kostakis, Jose Ramos, 13 Oct 17

The community of L'Atelier Paysan is building a wheat thresher. Chris Giotitsas/University of Leicester, CC BY-NC-ND

What if globally designed products could radically change how we work, produce and consume? Several examples across continents show the way we are producing and consuming goods could be improved by relying on globally shared digital resources, such as design, knowledge and software.

Imagine a prosthetic hand designed by geographically dispersed communities of scientists, designers and enthusiasts in a collaborative manner via the web. All knowledge and software related to the hand is shared globally as a digital commons.

People from all over the world who are connected online and have access to local manufacturing machines (from 3D printing and CNC machines to low-tech crafts and tools) can, ideally with the help of an expert, manufacture a customised hand. This the case of the OpenBionics project, which produces designs for robotic and bionic devices.

There are no patent costs to pay for. Less transportation of materials is needed, since a considerable part of the manufacturing takes place locally; maintenance is easier, products are designed to last as long as possible, and costs are thus much lower.

The first version of OpenBionics prosthetic and robotic hands. from

Take another example. Small-scale farmers in France need agricultural machines to support their work. Big companies rarely produce machines specifically for small-scale farmers. And if they do, the maintenance costs are high and the farmers have to adjust their farming techniques to the logic of the machines. Technology, after all, is not neutral.

So the farmers decide to design the agricultural machines themselves. They produce machines to accommodate their needs and not to sell them for a price on the market. They share their designs with the world – as a global digital commons. Small scale farmers from the US share similar needs with their French counterparts. They do the same. After a while, the two communities start to talk to each other and create synergies.

That’s the story of the non-profit network FarmHack (US) and the co-operative L’Atelier Paysan (France) which both produce open-source designs for agricultural machines.

With our colleagues, we have been exploring the contours of an emerging mode of production that builds on the confluence of the digital commons of knowledge, software, and design with local manufacturing technologies.

We call this model “design global, manufacture local” and argue that it could lead to sustainable and inclusive forms of production and consumption. It follows the logic that what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global while what is heavy (manufacturing) is local, and ideally shared.

When knowledge is shared, materials tend to travel less and people collaborate driven by diverse motives. The profit motive is not totally absent, but it is peripheral.

Decentralised open resources for designs can be used for a wide variety of things, medicines, furniture, prosthetic devices, farm tools, machinery and so on. For example, the Wikihouse project produces designs for houses; the RepRap community creates designs for 3D printers. Such projects do not necessarily need a physical basis as their members are dispersed all over the world.

Finding sustainability

But how are these projects funded? From receiving state funding (a research grant) and individual donations (crowdfunding) to alliances with established firms and institutions, commons-oriented projects are experimenting with various business models to stay sustainable.

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