The maker revolution: How DIY solutions can replace consumerism

archive-issue-four


With the maker movement becoming a global phenomenon we ask: what is driving it and where is it leading us?


In 2005 Dale Dougherty founded a magazine called Make. Dedicated to the maker movement, it soon inspired an event, Maker Faire, which allowed people to come and showcase things that they’d made. Just over 100 makers attended the first event in California.

Since then the movement has exploded. This year over 900 makers showcased their talents to over 130,000 visitors at the California event, with around 150 more Maker Faire events scheduled to happen around the world before the year is out. That level of interest led USA Today to suggest that makers are responsible for $29bn being poured into the world economy each year.

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“The maker movement continues to gain momentum,” Dougherty explains in an article titled The Maker Mindset. “We can see the growth of maker communities online as well as the development of physical community workspaces and the spread of Maker Faire around the world.

“The movement is spurred by the introduction of new technologies such as 3D printing and the Arduino microcontroller; new opportunities created by faster prototyping and fabrication tools as well as easier sourcing of parts and direct distribution of physical products online.”

The internet

For years there was a disconnect between what people learned in school and the practical skills that are required to make things. Home economics, craft, design and technology and any subject with a practical bent has been marginalised over time, leaving many kids without the faintest idea how to sew, cook or make something out of wood.

Then the internet came along and allowed like minded people to exchange ideas easily.

The development of the maker movement has seen the internet adapt to the maker community’s needs. It’s not just about sharing ideas anymore – sites such as Quirky and Kickstarter can help you turn an idea into a real product whilst Inventables has positioned itself as the Amazon of the DIY world, selling materials to makers in the sizes and quantities appropriate to them.

3D printers

After the internet, perhaps the main technology driver behind the growth of the maker movement is 3D printing. The machines, which allow users to create 3D objects designed on a computer in plastic, metal and over a hundred other materials, have fallen in price and boomed in popularity over the last few years.

Insight firm Canalys say the global market for 3D printers including sales, materials and services reached $2.5bn in 2013. It also predicts the market will rise to $3.8bn in 2014 and $16.2bn by 2018, giving it a compound annual growth rate of just over 45%.

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“Ordinary people are using MakerBots to make the things they need instead of going the consumerism route,” says Bre Prettis, CEO of leading 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot. “This means you get what you want by either designing it, or downloading it from Thingiverse and then making it when and where you need it.”

Electronics

Advances in electronics technology have changed the game for makers. The Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer that can be plugged into a TV or keyboard and used to make a huge range of electronics goods from thermostats to robots. Sales of the Pi hit three million in May 2014.

Described in some quarters as the most accessible open source hardware movement of its time, Arduino is a high tech DIY electronics kit with a cheap programmable computer that can be used to make almost anything electronic. There are currently 1.2 million official Arduinos in circulation and the product’s website attracts between four and five million visitors over a three-month period.

“We were adopted by the maker movement as their electronics platform,” explains Arduino inventor and CEO Massimo Banzi. “The great thing about that is there are a lot of people that never thought they could program microcontrollers, never thought they would make circuits. And they end up making start-up companies making electronic products, something which, 15 years ago, was very difficult and was available only to people who had experience in electronics.”

Makerspaces

The advancement in computer numerical control (CNC) mill technology means you can now get a device so small it’ll fit on your desktop and cut wood, plastic and aluminium. For example the Shapeoko 2, available on Inventables, is a low-cost open source machine that can be built over a weekend and turn a home office into a factory.

However, whilst the price of CNC mills and most popular maker technology has come down over the last few years, some of it is still out of reach for the humble bedroom enthusiast. This has led to a huge growth in the creation of hackerspaces or makerspaces, where people can come together and use tools they might not otherwise be able to access.

Tech Shop, which provides access to over $1m worth of professional equipment including laser cutters, welding stations and a waterjet cutter from eight locations across the US, has experienced a 798% revenue growth in the last three years.

This kind of demand has stimulated similar developments around the world. From the more community focused MakerSpace in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to the GE-sponsored garages in the US, people are coming together to pool resources and knowledge in their quest to make things happen.

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“We’re a making and learning space for start-up businesses that make things,” says Tom Tobia, who poured his savings into setting up Makerversity at Somerset House in London in 2013. “We’ve got about 150 people working from our space now – architects, engineers, a chemist, hackers – you name it, we’ve got it.

“The deal is that they can base themselves with us so they can have constant access to all our kit, like 3D printers and laser cutters. They get that very cheaply as long as they agree to be part of our faculty and share their expertise in terms of free learning opportunities for young people.

“This isn’t for people who want to go and tinker in their shed. It’s to help exciting new businesses get off the ground and for the young people it’s a chance to work with the kind of emerging technologies you wouldn’t get access to at a normal university. It’s really a two fingers up at the attitude you need to go to Oxbridge in order to be successful.”

Growing demand

Whilst the advances in technology and number of places where you can use it have played a crucial role in the supply of home made goods, demand is an equally important component in the maker movement boom.

If Etsy, a maker-oriented version of Ebay, is anything to go by then demand for something different to the normal high street offerings is strong. With over one million DIY sellers in over 150 countries around the world, the company made $1.35bn in gross merchandise sales in 2013.

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“We represent something really fundamental about humanity – the making of things,” says Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson. “I think our success is a reaction to the mass retail culture. There’s a real desire to re-connect with people, to know the person who made what you’re consuming. There’s also a desire not to have the same things that everyone has bought at the store.

“When you buy something off our website you know that 96.5% of the money is going to whoever made the product. It’s going back to a community rather than the large central headquarters of a big retailer. That ‘s a really powerful context.”

Industrial revolution

With more people turning to making than ever before what impact will that have on society? Will we turn away from consumerism? Could it be the beginning of a new industrial revolution? Tom Tobia thinks so.

“You don’t need a factory to make a product anymore,” he says. “You can do it on a table with a 3D printer. It’s opened up access to many more people and made manufacturing cool again. It has the potential to be revolutionary because you’re putting manufacturing in the hands of everyone. Anyone, anywhere can make anything. It’s much more democratic.

“Culturally it’s important because it changes the relationship between the consumer and the product. I could go and buy a pair of shoes and once they get a bit scuffed up and knackered I’d throw them away and buy another pair. If I’d made the shoes, I’d be more likely to look after them. There’d be less waste as people would throw less stuff away.”

 

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