In the early years of the maker movement, who would have predicted that digital fabrication tools could become as affordable and user-friendly as they are today? No longer needing specialists to keep them running, fabrication machines are accepted by mainstream users as tools in their daily lives. CNC routers, laser cutters, digital sewing machines, vinyl cutters, and 3D printers are now found beyond makerspaces and garages, in classrooms, libraries, museums, and startup accelerators.
The resulting democratization of digital fabrication has had an especially powerful impact on entrepreneurs. Suddenly barriers to market entry were drastically lowered and new companies sprang up, offering everything from 3D-printed jewelry to laser-engraved advertising specialties, and drones made from laser-cut parts to CNC-machined home furnishings. Coronavirus accelerated the number of makers who saw opportunity in a local supply chain and there are many stories of high-volume PPE production led by maker-entrepreneurs.
But being a successful entrepreneur is not an easy path and is certainly not the career of choice for everyone. After all, an average of only 20% of U.S. new businesses will still be around beyond the 5-year mark. So, what does digital fabrication hold in store for makers who want an engaging, well-paying career path but don’t want to run their own business?
Digital Transformation Across Industries
Just as digital tools have become mainstream in fields such as education, these new technologies are disrupting a range of industries. For the last two years, I have been researching technology’s impact on jobs for the Future Workforce Now project led by the National Governors Association, The Fab Foundation, and the international human-development non-profit FHI360. We found that in a short period of time, industries from agriculture to warehousing have undergone digital changes that offer big opportunities for anyone with digital fabrication skills.
Making is no longer the purview of manufacturing alone. One of the most eye-opening comments during the Future Workforce Now project’s roundtables came from Walmart: “Now that we have janitorial robots, we have two concerns. One is what do we do with all of our frontline workers? The other is who is going to program, monitor, and repair the robots?”
The answer lies within the maker movement. Young digital natives are already using the tools that build and repair robots, and have hands-on experience gained in First Robotics competitions and the like. Walmart confirms that automation is happening all around us and the shift from “blue-collar” to what IBM’s Ginny Rometty calls “new-collar” jobs is urgent. While we are waiting for the kids to grow up, employers and governments must invest in upskilling today’s workers and welcoming adults with non-traditional digital fabrication training.
Bio-printing is often in healthcare news. But other 21st-century technologies are routinely being used in diagnostic labs and operating rooms. Quick, inexpensive tests using “Lab on a Chip” microfluidic devices are possible because companies like Potomac Photonics, which I co-founded with Dr. Paul Christensen, can laser micro-machine 10- to 30-micron-wide channels in which tiny liquid samples flow. Even traditionally conservative medical device companies like Medtronic have developed robotic surgical assistants in order to increase the accuracy and repeatability of human doctors.
These medical applications have created many types of new-collar jobs that utilize digital fabrication skills, often without a college degree. Explains Potomac Photonics president and CEO Mike Adelstein, “Today’s laser, CNC, and 3D printing tools provide career pathways for anyone in our community with curiosity, dedication, and a willingness to learn.” A case in point is John Ford, who joined Potomac as a laser operator in 2007 right out of high school. He is now an engineer, and extolls how engaging his job is: “Even on a bad day, how great is it to have a job where you get to play with lasers all day?”
The centuries-old traditions of fashion are also undergoing a digital awakening. In his new venture since departing 3D Systems as CEO, XponentialWorks founder and CEO Avi Reichental and his partner Jenna Jobst created the JenaviGuard, a 3D-knitted face mask for coronavirus protection. Shoe manufacturer New Balance is adding 3D-printed components to shoes now that production equipment can meet volume and material requirements.
Avi points out that the advancement in technology allows for a new human-machine collaboration that opens mankind’s potential for creativity. Digital fabrication when incorporated with artificial intelligence and generative design allows humans to do what we do best — innovate!
A Revolution in Hiring Practices
Along with all this new technology comes a revolution that is simultaneously happening in hiring practices. Driven by the skills gap and the urgent need for digital workers, employers are re-examining the need for a college degree in many professions. We’ve all seen the self-taught programmers who get offered six-figure salaries right out of high school, and that is now a possibility for digital fabrication jobs.
IBM was one of the earliest companies to hire based on skills, led by the strong beliefs of Ginny Rometty, former CEO and now executive chairman of the digital powerhouse. She has said that as many as 15% of manufacturing jobs at IBM require no college degree and she has been a leader in driving the White House Workforce Task Force. Along with Apple CEO Tim Cook and other industry leaders, the Task Force helped create an executive directive for all federal job hiring practices to be revised in order to focus on skills over degrees. This is impressive since the U.S. Government is the nation’s largest employer.
Opportunities for Makers
The World Economic Forum in their 2018 The Future of Jobs Report predicts that 75 million jobs will be lost to automation by 2022. On the flip side, they see almost double that number of people, 133 million, will be needed to fill the new kinds of 21st-century jobs that are already emerging. Makers have just the types of skills — digital design, robotics, 3D printing, laser and CNC machining, AI, predictive analytics, and more — that these jobs demand. Further, my research with 200 employers in 2017 showed that employers are hungry for workers with problem-solving experience, something learned naturally in makerspaces, fab labs, and schools teaching with project-based learning methodologies.
The Future Workforce Now toolkit that was developed for states to implement new policy strategies emphasizes the need to foster new Lifelong Learning models. Although 2- or 4-year degrees may not be a digital job requirement, specialized skills are definitely needed. These can be acquired via skill-specific training that is short in duration and affordable, such as the digital badges from the New Collar Network program. Even for makers with experience, a micro-credential can add depth to a resume.
It is clear that powerful trends in technology, industry, hiring practices, and education are converging to create a new workplace. With makers’ mastery and advancement of digital fabrication tools, we are creating an opening to fabricate this very Future of Work for ourselves.