by Chris McGivern, 11 January 2023
Andrew is an information and systems engineer from the UK and a specialist in disaster relief response. His concept is Massive Small Manufacturing: an ecosystem of projects connecting together to revolutionise, decentralise, and distribute the means of production. He became a Fellow in 2018 to explore his ideas in the context of the aid sector, where supply chain failures cost countless lives and are a significant barrier to disaster relief interventions.
Massive Small Manufacturing is so vast in scope and complexity that we knew its ambitions would never come to fruition over the duration of his Fellowship. But that is the nature of big ideas and systems innovation in social change. This is why we invest in people, not projects. The real impact and value of our immediate support will only be realised many years later.
“I have spent a lot of time applying for various funds” says Andrew. “In my experience, few are willing to take a risk on real innovation. Most funders want guaranteed delivery, and when they hear me talking about changing the economic paradigm of the planet they fear they’ll be pouring money through a black hole.
“I get that, I really do. But this kind of thinking has held me back a lot because I’m working on something that will never be an overnight success. It’s not a tangible product and I’m not launching a public service. It’s a process or systems innovation, and it’s impossible to do if you are working to meet someone else’s metrics and their definition of success.
“But the Fellowship allowed me to engage with these very complex systems. It invests in people, trusts them, and lets them make judgements about what needs to be done. rather than make them follow specific criteria. It’s rare, and the Fellowship is the embodiment of the kind of funding the world needs.”
Massive Small Manufacturing is a response to problems, frustrations and concerns that have consumed Andrew’s thinking since before his career began. He went to university at a time when engineering students were questioning the purpose of the field: their bland, maths-heavy degree courses seemed to corral them towards creating profits for industry rather than value for society or meeting people’s needs. Andrew’s own experiences of the time did little to persuade him otherwise.
“A microprocessing firm sponsored my studies,” he recalls. “The deal was for me to join them full-time after graduating and also work there during my summer breaks. I have this vivid memory of realising what my job actually was: making very, very fast microprocessors work marginally faster.
“I don’t want to undervalue the importance of developing this kind of technology or devalue this kind of role. It’s what engineers do in places where there are lots of engineers: those incremental improvements to complex, but often consumer technology. But helping people have a slightly smoother experience of surfing TV channels wasn’t why I became an engineer, or how I wanted to spend the next twenty years.
“My interest was engineering in places where there are no engineers at all. I’ve always felt small-scale, people-sized technologies can have an outsized, disproportionate impact in that context.”
After the sponsor of his studies fell victim to the dotcom crunch of 2005, Andrew was free to move to an area where those interests could flourish. He’s been working in the disaster relief sector ever since, responding to crises with the resources at hand and developing the capacity to deliver aid faster, cheaper, and more effectively. But there has been a constant barrier to real progress throughout his entire career: an expensive, intractable, bureucratic system that is impossible to penetrate.
If you live in a wealthy country, the global supply chain serves you well. It is reliable, efficient, and cheap. But for billions elsewhere, it is fragile, expensive and painfully slow. The contrast is starkest in areas experiencing disaster or conflict. Here, supply chain disruption and long wait times are the very best you can hope for.
When relief agencies order emergency equipment, it’s typically delivered weeks or months late. Essential supplies are made in one continent, stored in another, and finally delivered to disaster areas - if at all. It is incredibly expensive: logistics costs devour 60-80% of international aid budgets. But the biggest cost of all is the loss of human life.
People die waiting weeks or months for the arrival of soap, buckets, and the most basic, life-saving equipment. Additionally, when response agencies move on, devastated communities are left to rebuild with little in the way of support, resources, or hope. Andrew has been plagued by these issues first-hand and many times over throughout his entire career.
“It’s a market failure by definition,” he explains. “And there is no way to fix it within the current system. There are too many intractable problems to attract investment - market size, corruption, protectionism and so on. In remote parts of the world, the supply chain barely exists. In more concentrated areas, as soon as roads, buildings, and airports are destroyed, the supply chain is destroyed, too.
“Aid rarely gets through, which means most of my career has been about improvising. Relief workers can’t bring the product with them, but they can bring tools, processes and knowledge to help them make do.”
The last decade has seen some of that knowledge and process bolstered by a new wave of technological developments. 3D-printing has become more affordable and portable - you can carry one in a backpack and use it in the remotest parts of the world. The open science and open hardware movements have grown significantly and are advancing the ideas of open exchanges of designs and localising capacity and expertise for making and maintaining equipment.
Andrew also sees the popularity and growth of the maker movement as an untapped opportunity. In many ways, the decentralisation of manufacturing is already happening in maker spaces and Fab Labs around the world. In the West, maker spaces are available to anyone but typically popular with gadget-making hobbyists. But the culture is changing elsewhere: the Phillipines, for example, is building Fab Labs to support local businesses and provide economic opportunities for people who otherwise might migrate elsewhere to fulfill their ambitions.
“It’s cheaper, faster and better for your community to make something locally than import it from elsewhere,” says Andrew. “That is the business case for Massive Small Manufacturing. I see a future where people are creating good livelihoods that support self-actualisation, self-determination and self-expression. You will never get through working 16-hour days on a factory line, or making toys and gadgets at your local Makerspace.
“And we need people to start figuring out the value of ‘I can make this’, rather than ‘I own the IP’. If you look at the technologies coming through now, they have economies of scope - like the 3d printer or CNC machine. You can distribute the same digital file to 200, 2000, or 20,000 different manufacturers in the region and they can produce them.
“So the idea is to bring all of this together in the context of humanitarian relief. We distribute production and decentralise manufacturing. We make equipment designs freely and openly available online. There’s no need to bring the product to the field, because people can make it locally if the tools, processes, knowledge and expertise are already there. It’s cheaper, faster and better for the local economy, which otherwise has to import products that are cheap to make but incredibly expensive to ship.”
We were delighted to welcome Andrew to the Fellowship in September 2018. His arrival was a fitting conclusion to a six month period we had spent reflecting on our past and considering the future of our Open Philanthropy experiment. Massive Small Manufacturing was a big, complex idea that encapsulated our new direction perfectly.
It described a new frontier for openness. It came with a business model, and a way to create value and self-determination for people enduring inequality, exclusion, and scarcity. And it contextualised a bigger vision of system change in the environment that would test it the most. But it was still only a concept. Andrew’s first goal was to break down the vision into its component parts.
“Massive Small Manufacturing is the mothership,” he explains. “And we need some fundamental things to make it work, and then we need to connect all those parts together. We need skills, designs, and materials. Industry standards are vital. You need discoverability - not only for finding designs but showing you where where you can make things - who has the capacity and capability and so on.”
Today, these component parts are becoming very real. The Internet of Production Alliance creates open standards and protocols to ensure high-quality, medically-safe products. With Open Know-How, Andrew has collected and distributed over a thousand openly-licensed, shareable, and low-cost designs to inspire innovation and save lives. Open Know-Where maps and shares critical information about the location of manufacturing capabilities.
Bringing all these components together makes the Internet an intermediary for economic development and production at a local level. It has a lot of promise, and could be the foundation for a future of sustainable, decentralised manufacturing and shared knowledge.
“We have maps of machines in several developing countries and disaster-affected countries,” he explains. “The platform isn’t fully built yet, but we have a map with an open data standard which our project members can use to find thousands of machines local to a particular area. And I can demonstrate what a hardware search might look like: we have a search engine that gives you hardware design files and helps you find nearby sewing machines, 3D printers, or whatever else you need.
“We also have the Humanitarian Making initiative to bring aid agencies together and share their design files so others can make products. So instead of redesigning equipment from scratch, you can just use someone else’s design. We have demonstrations of these systems, based on open standards that anyone can adopt.
“It feels like there’s a bit of institutionalisation taking place and I’ve been able to influence more organisations and people to move towards this approach. All the entities needed to sustain these ideas are in place, and I am really hopeful for the long-term future of this project. The idea of distributed mass production seems to be spreading.
“I don’t think this would have happened without the Fellowship. It’s enabled me to build a substantial track record, particularly with our buckets project. Today, I can point to locally-made, mass-produced buckets used by people living in rural parts of Fiji affected by cyclones. We can show people train track slabs made in remote areas of Vanuatu. This is all coming together to prove it is faster, cheaper and better to make things locally.”
The big interruption
The pandemic has played a significant role in Andrew’s Fellowship, proving encouraging and frustrating to his progress in equal measure. Travel restrictions and lockdowns have slowed things considerably. And while he has certainly lit a touch paper, there is still much to be done before the ideas behind Massive Small Manufacturing are adopted at scale.
There is huge potential, however. The long-term impacts of the pandemic and the ongoing series of chaotic, geo-political events have created near-perfect conditions for change. As global supply chains continue to choke, people in the West are experiencing a small taste of the everyday reality for most parts of the world and disaster relief agencies. Logistics has never been at the front of so many people’s minds and calls for a more robust system have never been more prominent.
There has also been an organic movement towards the ideas that Andrew is expressing. Within days of the outbreak, the global maker movement came together to fill gaps left by the supply chain failure. Designs for everything from ventilators to fabric masks were being shared online. It was an explosion of knowledge sharing, networking, coordination, and local manufacturing and procurement.
The conversation shifted, with openness playing an integral role. And just like the growing clamour for sharing vaccine know-how, people are beginning to question the morality of intellectual property restrictions on the designs of life-saving equipment.
“I think it is becoming politically unacceptable,” says Andrew. “Particularly amongst standards bodies and technical communities. Even some of the advocates of the patent system are having second thoughts about the COVID vaccine being the private property of one company.
“There’s a number of political advocacy efforts in Europe, the US, and even in Australia using the pandemic as an example to say that medical devices should be open. And frankly, it is ridiculous that they aren’t already. We have generic medicines, so why on earth do we not have generic medical devices? It’s absolutely insane.
“So the open hardware medical device movement is getting stronger and even high-profile supporters of the free market and patent system are starting to ask questions. There is a growing sense that there’s a point where something becomes so valuable and important that patents shouldn’t apply.
“In this sense, Massive Small Manufacturing has really taken off because of the pandemic. But I also think there is an increasing threat from the private sector, and a closed response could capture the movement before it has really made any progress. There must be an open alternative. I have always known we are up against the clock, but it’s starting to tick a lot faster.”
Openness is at the heart of Andrew’s concept. By making equipment designs and standards freely available online, more people can access and share them. The global reaction to the pandemic is evidence of how this works. Wherever the virus went, it was quickly followed by a wave of interest in open hardware designs and knowledge sharing.
Andrew’s initial idea was to fix market failure in the humanitarian relief supply chain, and much of his thinking has been adopted far more broadly. It has saved lives, created jobs, and enabled communities to react to local challenges. Not every open hardware effort has been a roaring success. But he gets a sense that a trend towards decentralisation and distribution of manufacturing is underway.
He also feels there is some institutionalisation for the component parts of Massive Small Manufacturing. The task now is to use the coming years to introduce a more professionalised, coordinated approach to the movement and the emerging technologies and standards driving it.
“It’s been challenging for me to show this is working,” he reflects. “It hasn’t happened as fast as I had hoped. The idea that it’s cheaper, better, and faster to make things locally hasn’t been entirely proven. Part of the problem is that Massive Small Manufacturing still depends on the existing manufacturing base. And there have been some big it turns out moving a pocket mould from Fiji to Bangladesh is not trivial.
“I have also learned that open also isn’t just about accessibility or making things easier for the world. It is about challenging power and ownership and control. And it’s not easy to be open. I think I had a rather rose-tinted, naive and optimistic understanding of the practicalities of open.
“Before the Fellowship came along, I didn’t realise the huge cost involved in making something open. Now I have some real understanding of why some of these open platforms need millions of dollars in investment. And why funding opportunities like this Fellowship are so important.
“I’d happily suggest it should be a lifelong funding arrangement,” laughs Andrew as he reflects on his Fellowship experience. “But it’s not only the funding. It has given me three years of freedom and trust to explore a big idea.
“Honestly, It’s helped me grow up. And even though my time is up I still feel very committed to the Fellowship. I can see it in my future. I’ve loved the Gatherings and people, and hearing about their work, and the reciprocity of help you have with other Fellows.”
Contact Andrew Lamb via his website: http://www.andrewlamb.info/