Field Notes on the Maker Movement

June 3, 2014 in Notes from the Field
Stephen Spencer
Senior Experience Designer

I recently attended MakerCon, MakerFaire, and related events in the San Francisco Bay area to gain a firsthand understanding of the “Maker Movement.” While I heard several professionals dismiss the events and maker community as an “amateur arts and crafts fair with electronics” during my visit, I feel they missed the forest for the trees. Below are my notes on the major themes that stood out.

Passion drives the entire maker community, which comprises mostly amateurs and hobbyists with a few brilliant individuals that will make really large impacts on our future day-to-day lives. I only met a few of these individuals (such as Lisa Fetterman from Nomiku), but each one followed a similar trajectory—making a prototype, sharing and testing it with a small community, using feedback to iterate on the design, building a company to make and deliver it at larger volumes, and continuing to stay in touch with the community to ensure needs are met.

Online and shared spaces enable the community to leverage the Internet for worldwide collaboration, learning, and sharing, while shared spaces (e.g., HackerSpaces, MakerSpaces, TechShops) provide physical space, public access to tools, and networks of like-minded individuals enabling people to make their dreams—whatever they’re passionate about.

Lowering barriers to product design and manufacturing is a necessity—the community is figuring out how to make things with near-zero resources (compared to companies like GE, Apple, and Whirlpool), which means they’re also working outside or on the fringes of existing professional practices such as industrial design and manufacturing. For example, one company showed the cloud-based bug-tracking software that they use for lightweight root cause analysis, while the community at large has reduced the $25,000 cost of small desktop FDM machines (like Stratasys’ uPrint) to $500 3D printers over a 5-year period. There’s a long road ahead, but the potential feels similar to what I imagine Jobs’ and Gates’ “homebrew computer club” feeling like.

Desktop design and manufacturing is a HUGE deal, and it’s not just about the current 3D Printing hype—it’s about “shaping atoms using bits” to quote AutoDesk’s CEO Carl Bass. Think about the impact of desktop publishing and printing on workplaces and lifestyles and expand that to things. There are a lot of technologies that fit into this category—the big ones are laser cutters, handheld CNC routers, pick-and-place machines, and 3D printers.

The business of making is not clear yet. A significant conversation thread stems from the fact that some individuals make something that 1,000’s of people want—but they typically don’t know how to or have a passion for mass producing it. This problem needs to be solved and there are two obvious answers: short term, the maker community will leverage the existing infrastructure (feeding their designs to existing supply chains, manufacturers, and distribution channels to satisfy consumer demand); and long term, a distributed digital manufacturing infrastructure will allow their things to be made on-site, on-demand—just like your “Kodak moments” which are uploaded and printed at your local drugstore.

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