A burgeoning set of services can connect makers with the resources necessary to take their inventions into full-scale production.
Until recently, the United States enjoyed more than 100 years as the world’s largest producer of manufactured goods. By 2011, when China took over the top slot, the phrase “Made in America” referred to a dazzling array of things we proudly assembled and sold, as well as the way 11 million people made their living.
Nowadays, the “Made in America” slogan has come to represent more than just factories and assembly lines. The entire U.S. maker community can lay claim to the label as individual innovators and DIYers bring new ideas to life and carve out entirely new niches in the market for consumer goods.
Nevertheless, there remains the challenge of scale — how a maker takes an idea past prototypes and one-offs to a level of manufacturing that will support real growth. These days, entrepreneurs are finding solutions in an array of new services we’ve labeled Instant Scale Production. These tools and networks of distributed manufacturing are increasingly making it possible to expand an innovator’s vision into a viable enterprise.
In a recent conversation, the co-founders of Makers Row, Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez, described their own challenges in going from maker to manufacturer and some of the insights that have come from helping others do the same.
Having burnt out on the complexity and lack of control of working with overseas producers for his own line of watches, Burnett described the insult-to-injury experience of trying to “reshore” his products with an American manufacturer.
“You can’t find these facilities anywhere. You’re using the Yellow Pages, Google, or even paying $2000 or $3000 for sourcing journals just to find a two-inch by two-inch square with the name and the address of a factory,” he explains. The process could take three months just to find a good match for your product … an ordeal that Makers Row has set out to eliminate.
Since 2012, Makers Row has provided a marketplace where designers and other creatives can search and connect with a network of more than 5000 American manufacturers. They have organized the process of moving from idea to assembly line into six steps, with opportunities at each stage of development to find the right service provider for your product.
And though they initially set out to help first-time entrepreneurs get their products to market, a surprising range of businesses have made use of the platform.
“On one hand, we have beginners, but on the other hand, we have found that some of the largest big-box stores in the United States have joined Maker’s Row,” Barnett says. “Everyone across the gamut is using this six-step process as a roadmap to find the appropriate manufacturer.”
Why are so many people looking for domestic producers when the last few decades have been dominated by the call to move overseas?
“The cost of labor right now is skyrocketing,” says Burnett. “If you look at the production price tag on goods today, it’s doubled, if not tripled since I was producing in 2007.” With additional taxes, import rates and shipping tariffs to bring those products from overseas to the United States, “Made in China” just isn’t as cheap as it used to be, says Burnett.
And it’s not simply the rising cost of offshoring that brings designers to Makers Row, says Menendez. Makers do better with domestic production due to their nature as constant innovators.
“People need to be close to their manufacturers in order to re-engineer, in order to be nimble, and in order to continuously iterate on the product and have really great communication,” says Menendez. All this adds up to a community of creatives that find it easier and more affordable to work with American partners when scaling-up to mass production.
Burnett and Menendez see Makers Row as part of a new ecosystem that is making it easier for new goods to come to market … and changing the culture of American manufacturing, to boot.
“Creating a business is really scary,” says Burnett. But things are changing. He points to platforms for distribution and e-commerce like Shopify, as well as crowdfunding platforms for capital-raising and the use of Twitter or WordPress to market new products. “These are all things that have lowered the barriers for small business owners, and we fit directly into that ecosystem at a very early stage, feeding into scalable and sustainable businesses.”
Traditionally, entrepreneurs have resisted this kind of community-based approach to manufacturing, often keeping their producers a secret as an advantage over their competition.
But, Burnett says, this hurts the ecosystem. With Makers Row, manufacturers are being appropriately contacted at the right time in a designer’s process, so they’re able to qualify each incoming lead. The result, says Burnett, is better matches between products and producers and a stronger manufacturing base, overall.
“There’s a number of facilities in our manufacturing community that have started hiring as a direct result of the clients they’ve got through Makers Row,” he said. “We’re able to not only help manufacturers sustain their revenue stream, but also grow.”
Stronger, more accessible partners for ramping up production feeds the sweet spot of the maker-entrepreneur community, says Mendendez; innovative products developed by people who are solving the problems they experience, themselves.
“The ballerina creating a better leotard, the dermatologist creating a better visor,” she says. “All of these are going to create a new standard for innovation, and they’re also going to give consumers more choices.”
With 135 million Americans classified as makers, that’s a lot of interesting new products that may come to market. It’s also a lot of matching for Makers Row … maybe even enough to put the United States back on top of the manufacturing pile.
Editor’s note: The “Maker’s Manual” spotlights the do-it-yourself maker movement and how new computing technologies are helping democratize the creation of things once limited to craftsmen and professionals. This 10-week series from PSFK and iQ by Intel explores trends and features interviews with artists, inventors and entrepreneurs who are turning their ideas and dreams into reality.