More than just digital quilting
Technology and society: The “maker” movement could change how science is taught and boost innovation. It may even herald a new industrial revolution
Dec 3rd 2011 | from the print edition
THE scene in the park surrounding New York’s Hall of Science, on a sunny weekend in mid-September, resembles a futuristic craft fair. Booths displaying handmade clothes sit next to a pavilion full of electronics and another populated by toy robots. In one corner visitors can learn how to pick locks, in another how to use a soldering iron. All this and much more was on offer at an event called Maker Faire, which attracted more than 35,000 visitors. This show and an even bigger one in Silicon Valley, held every May, are the most visible manifestations of what has come to be called the “maker” movement. It started on America’s West Coast but is spreading around the globe: a Maker Faire was held in Cairo in October.
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.
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Start with hardware. The heart of New York’s Maker Faire was a pavilion labelled with an obscure Italian name: “Arduino” (meaning “strong friend”). Inside, visitors were greeted by a dozen stands displaying credit-card-sized circuit boards. These are Arduino micro-controllers, simple computers that make it easy to build all kinds of strange things: plants that send Twitter messages when they need watering, a harp made of lasers, an etch-a-sketch clock, a microphone that serves as a breathalyser, or a vest that displays your speed when riding a bike.
Such projects are taking off because Arduino is affordable (basic boards cost $20), can easily be extended using add-ons called “shields” to add new functions and has a simple programming system that almost anyone can use. “Not knowing what you are doing is an advantage,” says Massimo Banzi, an Italian engineer and designer who started the Arduino project a decade ago to enable students to build all kinds of contraptions. Arduino has since become popular—selling around 200,000 units in 2011—because Mr Banzi made the board’s design “open source” (which means that anyone can download its blueprints and build their own versions), and because he has spent much time and effort getting engineers all over the world involved with the project.
This openness has prompted a sizeable ecosystem of add-ons. They include a touch-screen, an illuminated display and support for Wi-Fi networking. Other firms have built specialised variants of Arduino. SparkFun, for instance, has developed Lilypad, a flexible micro-controller that can be sewn into clothing (think blinking T-shirts), along with many other add-ons.
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.
As for online communities, Arduino has an active forum on its website, while MakerBot runs a website called Thingiverse, which lets people share 3D designs. YouTube and other video-sharing sites offer how-to clips for almost everything. On Instructables, users post and discuss recipes to make and do all kinds of things. And then there is Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, from hand-knitted scarves to 3D-printed jewellery.
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.
Firms may also copy some of the unusual business models that makers, often accidental entrepreneurs, have come up with. Arduino lets other firms copy its designs, for example, but charges them to use its logo. Quirky, an industrial design firm based in New York City, uses crowdsourcing to decide which products to make. MakieLab of London is developing a platform to allow toy shops or individuals to develop customised toys and have them printed. Venture capitalists are nosing around the field. In recent months Quirky raised $16m, MakerBot raised $10m and Shapeways, a firm that offers a 3D-printing service, received $5m.
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.