The “maker” movement [an excerpt from The Economist]
An excerpt from “The Economist”
The maker movement is both a response to and an outgrowth of digital culture, made possible by the convergence of several trends. New tools and electronic components let people integrate the physical and digital worlds simply and cheaply. Online services and design software make it easy to develop and share digital blueprints. And many people who spend all day manipulating bits on computer screens are rediscovering the pleasure of making physical objects and interacting with other enthusiasts in person, rather than online. Currently the preserve of hobbyists, the maker movement’s impact may be felt much farther afield.
Applying the open-source approach to hardware has also driven the development of the maker movement’s other favourite piece of kit, which could be found everywhere at the Maker Faire in New York: 3D printers. These machines are another way to connect the digital and the physical realms: they take a digital model of an object and print it out by building it up, one layer at a time, using plastic extruded from a nozzle. The technique is not new, but in recent years 3D printers have become cheap enough for consumers. MakerBot Industries, a start-up based in New York, now sells its machines for $1,300. The output quality is rapidly improving thanks to regular upgrades, many of them suggested by users.
None of this action in hardware would have happened without a second set of powerful drivers: software, standards and online communities. Arduino, for instance, relies on open-source programs that turn simple code into a form that can be understood by the board’s brain. Similarly, MakerBot’s 3D printers depend on a standard way to describe physical objects, called STL, and affordable software to design them. Some basic modelling programs, such as Google SketchUp and Blender, can be downloaded free.
The ease with which designs for physical things can be shared digitally goes a long way towards explaining why the maker movement has already developed a strong culture—its third driver. “If you are not sharing your designs, you are doing it wrong,” says Bre Pettis, the chief executive of MakerBot. Physical space and tools are being shared, too, in the form of common workshops. Some 400 such “hacker spaces” already operate worldwide, according to Hackerspaces.org. Many are organised like artists’ collectives. At Noisebridge, a hacker space in San Francisco, even non-members can come and tinker—as long as they comply with the group’s main rule: to be “excellent” to each other. “The internet is no substitute for a real community,” says Mitch Altman, a co-founder of Noisebridge.
This sort of thing makes the maker movement sound a lot like the digital equivalent of quilting bees. But it has already had a wider impact, mainly in schools in America. Many have discovered 3D printers and Arduino boards—and are using them to make their science and technology classes more hands-on again, and teach students to be producers as well as users of digital products.
All this will boost innovation, predicts Dale Dougherty, the founder of Make magazine, a central organ of the maker movement. Its tools and culture promote experimentation, collaboration and rapid improvement. Makers can play in niches that big firms ignore—though they are watching the maker movement and will borrow ideas from it, Mr Dougherty believes. The Maker Faire in New York was sponsored by technology companies including HP and Cognizant. Autodesk, which makes computer-aided design software, bought Instructables in August.
The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking. In both cases enthusiastic tinkerers, many on America’s West Coast, began playing with new technologies that had huge potential to disrupt business and society. Back then the machines manipulated bits; now the action is in atoms. This has prompted predictions of a new industrial revolution, in which more manufacturing is done by small firms or even by individuals. “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.
It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.