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Manufacturing in the UK is a touchy subject. The very word can conjure up bleak images of factory closures, dole queues, strikes and desolated towns outside of the South East. I know this only too well having grown up in Corby, which was once home to one of the biggest steel producers in the UK. But those days are long gone. In the late 1970s, manufacturing made up close to a third of British GDP, yet now it is barely a tenth. Over the same period, employment in this sector fell from around 6.8 million to 2.5 million today.

So what does the future hold for this industry? There are some, like the RSA, who are cautiously optimistic. Last year we published a report that predicted many mid-sized manufacturers would soon move production back to home turf, in part due to rising resource costs, new production technologies and changing consumer demand. Indeed, findings released this month from the manufacturing group EEF indicate that 1 in 6 firms have reshored in the past 3 years.

Yet it’s not all about the big firms. In fact, new data from the Business Population Estimates highlights a remarkable amount of growth in the number of one-man makers. The graph below shows that the population of manufacturing firms with zero employees (i.e. just the owners) has increased by nearly 40 percent over the past 3 years alone, mostly in the last 12 months. By 2013 there were 50,000 more one-man makers than there were in 2010. This stands in stark contrast with the other manufacturing firm sizes, which have all shrunk in number.


But what’s causing the boom? One explanation is that the proliferation of 3D printers is finally taking hold. The research firm Gartner estimates that global shipments of 3D printers shot up by nearly 50 per cent last year, and predicts a further rise of 75 per cent this year. Not only are these technologies becoming cheaper, they are also improving in technical proficiency. A few years ago 3D printers were limited to making prototypes, yet today around 20 per cent of printer output comes in the form of a final product (and this figure is expected to rise to 50 per cent by 2020).

Of course, such additive technologies are still in the early stages of development. And many have understandably criticised the hype, saying that the products they generate are rarely of good quality and that the raw materials they use are prohibitively expensive. But clearly this hasn’t deterred people from recognising the potential of these new machines. The notion that you could physically print off objects in your own home would have amazed most people 20 or 30 years ago. Indeed, some of the stories that emerge from the maker community are startling. Only a few months ago I interviewed someone living in Orkney who uses 3D printers to design and make model railway parts, which are then shipped around the world.

Yet the technology to make goods is only one part of the story. Also important are the new platforms that allow these one-man makers to sell their goods. The best-known example is Etsy, which last year hit a billion dollars in annual revenues (and I'm not just saying this because they are supporting our work). Etsy has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to set up a shop from their living room and earn money from the crafts they make, from ceramics, to jewellery, to furniture. And in many cases they will have a job on the side. According to a survey of their US sellers, close to 60 per cent are working elsewhere (half of whom are in full-time roles).

So while it’s right to lament the decline of our old manufacturing industries in the UK, and to revive them where possible, we should also recognise (and support) the tinkerers, inventors and makers who are bringing manufacturing back to life from the grassroots.

The RSA and Etsy are exploring similar themes in a new project, The Power of Small.

Follow Ben Dellot on Twitter.


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