How do you find local manufacturers? A survey of Mapping Initiatives

The vast majority of the world’s small-scale manufacturers do not have any presence on the internet. They get their business from passing trade and by referral, and they may advertise locally or attend trade fairs or similar. Those that do have web sites often gear them towards selling the standard products that they make, not at explaining what manufacturing capabilities they have that could also make different products. If we want to move towards a world where more products are made close to the point of use, we need to change this.

This is why Make Works is such an important project – they toured Scotland, visiting all kinds of manufacturers and material suppliers, and collecting information to make it as easy as possible for designers and makers to engage with them. They are now applying their methodology to different locations – Sweden is the latest, in beta version at the moment.  

If a project like this was necessary in Scotland in the UK, it is even harder to find systematic information on manufacturers’ capabilities and locations in much of the Global South. Kumasi in Ghana where I was based last year has at least hundreds if not thousands of small & micro enterprises in welding, carpentry, auto repairs, and all kinds of different making or manufacturing skills – none of which I know how to find on the internet, or in any kind of directory.

So if you want to find people to make things local to where you are, how do you do it? You find the people who are well-connected in the local manufacturing ecosystem, like local makerspaces. You talk to trade associations and chambers of commerce. And you go looking down the back streets and in the industrial parts of town, asking people as you go. All this yields useful information – but then how do we turn this into a system that allows the next people who have the same question to also benefit from the information gathered?

The MakerNet project is all about exploring what kinds of tools and infrastructure will enable local manufacturing to be used far more widely than is currently the case. Undoubtedly, one of the pieces of the puzzle is information about who can make what, where. The idea is to have information available so that whether it is an aid agency buying items for use in schools across a country, or an entrepreneur with a great idea for a new product, people who need products can find out where they can be made close to the point of use. We can’t possibly actively go out and map manufacturers all over the world. But we can create a framework so that what information is gathered, in different times in different places, can be usefully shared and searched. Once some areas are mapped, and we can monitor the benefits to the local economy, we hope to be able to make the case for investment in mapping of other areas.

There are many decisions to be made in setting up such a system, and to start to explore them we created the Makepedia Demonstrator Site as part of our pilot project, and have now made a survey of mapping initiatives. From tours or lists of makerspaces to projects documenting the work of artisans, there are many initiatives that have looked at some aspect of this challenge. Please take a look at the list we have compiled and let us know about other projects we have missed – for sure there are lots more out there and we want to be able to learn from them all! From the columns in the spreadsheet you can see what features we think are interesting to consider about each of these initiatives – mapping method, update method, business model, and so on. What else should we look at?

On a separate tab we have listed some of the sites (such as 3D Hubs and OpenDesk) that allow users to place orders with manufacturing facilities as well as just locate them. We have chosen not to include on-demand manufacturing services that use their own manufacturing assets (e.g. Plethora, Ponoko) as this is not our focus. What we’re interested in is finding ways to make better use of what manufacturing capacity already exists, and to support the small businesses that have those important capabilities.

Please share with us what you know and think about this! You can comment in the document or e-mail us at connect@makernet.global.