Why the future of UK manufacturing is local

It would be a generous understatement to say that John Maynard Keynes missed the bullseye by a considerable distance when he predicted that 2030 would see the advent of the 15-hour working week.

Why the future of UK manufacturing is local

Our primary issue, he suggested, would be keeping busy during the acres of free time we’d find available. He got it stunningly wrong. But Keynes was right about some things, and his notion that “it is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits” still holds as true as ever. 

That maxim has now inspired a new manufacturing model – Open Making. The principle behind it is beautifully simple – take designs from all over the world and localise production. It’s also what fuels Opendesk, the London-based furniture design company I co-founded.

Our business model allows customers to purchase designs online and have them manufactured locally. Customers all over the world select from a range of desks, chairs, tables and workspace fittings before directing them to nearby manufacturers, who assemble and deliver the pieces.

The ‘global-local’ model is in increasingly popular with a roster of international designers, including Samuel Javelle, Maud Eisberg, Félix Lévêque and Yuichi Hirose, whose popular Handmade Balans Chair is made of 18mm thick sheets  cut with a CNC milling machine.

Crucially, it’s a model that’s sustainable and green. There’s no need for long-distance shipping, so distribution and environmental costs are radically reduced, and manufacture generally requires a computer and a CNC machine, and not much more. Easy, slot-in designs avoid the need for nails, bolts and excess packaging, and although choosing the wood-type is left to the manufacturer, makers commonly use sustainable woods like birch plywood which are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The pricing manages to stay competitive and fair. Around 8% of the price goes to the designer, which compares favourably with the 3-5% designers would usually receive on a mass-production model, and the maker takes about 70%, rather than 20-30%. In this sense, the model is a local economic multiplier: designers and makers gain access to a global customer-base, and the business will reliably generate a workable revenue. The ultimate goal is to create a viable alternative to traditional, mass-produced distribution methods.

But it’s the global nature of the Open Making model that presents a potentially revolutionary opportunity for UK manufacturing. The Opendesk idea was born when Mint Digital commissioned bespoke office furniture for both their London and New York offices. Turning the designs into software made the possibilities for production endless. Since its inception, Opendesk’s maker partnerships have risen in number from two to around 400 based in 32 different countries. 300 designers have requested to join the platform alongside 700 makers across the globe. The big picture, as Opendesk sees it, involves unlocking a kind of third industrial revolution: delivering products on-demand via ethically, economically and environmentally sustainable channels.

Although the furniture industry has served as a starting point (and a reasonable one too, with the UK workspace furniture market valued at £64 million a year), the arrival of 3D printers gives rise to a whole range of manufacturing possibilities. The increasing popularity of digital making, or ‘digital fabrication’, could extend to a range of products, giving UK-based businesses an instantly global channel to market. As the UK manufacturing industry continues to shrink and steel production collapses under pressure from Chinese competitors, Open Making might be perfectly timed to save the day.

Britain’s manufacturing industry has already made great steps by playing to its strengths – by producing specialised parts for the automotive and aerospace industries. A logical next step would be an extension to ultra-local manufacturing. Without the capacity to expand onsite to the size of manufacturing giants like the US, China and Japan, digital access to the global network of independent manufacturers might be a chance for the UK to capitalise on an unclaimed production space.

It’s probably safe to say that Ikea isn’t in any real danger when it comes to the flat-pack furniture field, but there’s a great deal more at stake. My co-founder at Opendesk Nick Ierodiaconou is fond of saying “We’re doing to the furniture business what Airbnb has done to the hotel industry.”

The Open Making movement is here to stay. And while it may never compete with Ikea on price, its democratising influence could deliver a genuinely green renaissance for UK manufacturing. Handled right, it could help produce an industry that is active, global and sustainable – even if Keynes’ 15-hour working week remains a flight of fancy.

Case study: Greenpeace (pictured)

Environmental NGO Greenpeace wished to renovate its office in a former animal testing lab in North London where it has been based since 1990, and approached the project with a view to maximising local economic benefits and minimising environmental impact.

Engaging in a partnership with Opendesk along side Architecture 00 brought their shared ecological, social and community principles to bear on a collaborative design process directed at developing the space as a whole. Using a local maker based in Hackney Central (a 20-minute cycle ride from Greenpeace’s Islington headquarters), Opendesk refitted an open-plan area of 10,000 square meters with plywood furniture, storage systems and integrated planting. 

Tim Carrigan is CEO and Co-Founder of Opendesk, a a global platform for local making.

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