If you want an overview of the maker movement — where it stands, where it’s going, and who’s making it happen — yesterday’s Maker Summit, held at TechShop Arlington in advance of the National Day of Making and the first White House Maker Faire is a good place to start. It’s not always an easy subject to parse, connected as it is across so many industries and levels, from grassroots to institutional. The President’s Faire is both an opportunity to bring ideas to the President’s attention, and for him to direct the attention of the nation, points out Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
But there’s an inherent conundrum in the maker movement — at its heart a grassroots endeavor — as it applies to large institutions, and none are bigger than the government. How can the bottom-up nature of the maker movement apply to top-down organizations like industry and government? How can each benefit from the other, asks Kalil? One answer is the groups and small organizations makers form, which can act as liaisons to bodies like NASA, DARPA, NOAA, and universities. City and local government can work with the movement as well.
Of course the government and industry stand to benefit from makers, especially when those makers tackle big problems like space exploration, carbon, and energy. The appliances division of GE is experimenting with a way to use — and use quickly — ideas developed by makers, while paying licensing deals and letting those makers retain the intellectual property, according to Venkat Venkatakrishnan, lead facilitator of the effort, which GE calls FirstBuild.
Tied up in GE’s approach is another inherent quality of the movement: Speed. Rapid prototyping is an important factor when manufacturing becomes more distributed, and more customized. Demand for smaller manufacturing runs will increase as products become more personalized, and that offers different challenges for industry, especially in big companies that spend a great deal on R&D.
Where large enterprises can — and will be forced to — move into automated manufacturing, smaller, maker-based endeavors can reframe both manufacturing and retailing. This will be the next generation of mom and pop stores, says Deloitte’s John Hagel, co-chair of the Center for the Edge.
The ramifications of this kind of manufacturing are huge, and it’s no wonder Obama is interested. This is a catalyst for employment — the bulk of future employment, according Hagel — and for American and local economies.
Underlying it all is education and community.
“This is a deeply interdisciplinary movement,” says Peter Hirshberg, who spoke about the Maker City. He calls maker cities, and the communities that build them, a new frontier, pointing out how much Americans identify with a frontier. “I was looking for maker cities, but I think what I discovered along the way was the renewal of the American dream,” he says.
The impact on education could be just as big. As primary education is pushing STEAM learning, and higher ed is addressing the problem of access to tools, partly through curriculum changes, but also through community collaboration and access to makerspaces. The iterative process many startups engage is finding its way into education, thanks again to rapid prototyping and the willingness to experiment and sometimes fail.
“Our belief is the maker movement is creating the opportunity for all of us, as individuals, to tap in to our creative potential, and realize it in ways that just weren’t feasible in the past, and do it also in communities of practice where we come together,” says Hagel. “We’re not just isolated individuals, but we’re learning from each other through practice.”