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Investigating the growth and influence of professional Makers

The growth of the Maker movement has been nothing if not amazing. We’ve had more than 100,000 people at Maker Faire in San Francisco, and more than 50,000 at the New York event, with mini-Maker Faires in many other cities. Arduino is almost a household word, along with Raspberry Pi. Now that O’Reilly has spun out Maker Media as an independent company, we look forward to the continued success of these events; they’re signs of an important cultural shift, a rejection of a prefabricated, shrink-and bubble-wrap economy that hasn’t served us well. The Make movement has proven that there are many people who want the joy of creating, whether it’s a crystal radio, a custom head for a Pez dispenser, or glowing e coli.

But the Maker movement is not just about hobbyists. We’ve seen a lot in print about the re-shoring of American manufacturing, the return of the manufacturing jobs that had been exported to China and the Far East over the past few decades. One of the questions we’re asking at O’Reilly is what the Maker movement has to do with the return of manufacturing. If the return of manufacturing just means lots of low-level industrial jobs, paying barely more than minimum wage and under near-slavery conditions, that doesn’t sound desirable. That also doesn’t sound possible, at least to me: whatever else one might say about the cost of doing business in the U.S., North America just doesn’t have the sheer concentrations of people needed to make a Foxconn.

Of course, many of the writers who’ve noted the return of manufacturing have also noted that it’s returning in a highly automated way: instead of people running around a warehouse, you’ll have Kiva robots doing the running. Instead of skilled machinists operating milling machines, you’ll have highly automated computer controlled machines with a small number of humans to test the parts and make sure they’re operating properly. This vision is more plausible — even likely — but while it promises continued employment for the engineers who make the robots, it certainly doesn’t solve any problems in the labor market.

But just as small business has long been the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, one wonders whether or not small manufacturing, driven by “professional Makers,” could be the foundation for the resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. A number of innovations have made this shift conceivable. One of the most important is the ease with which makers can raise money to get a business started. Thanks to Kickstarter, initial funding for a small business is a lot easier than it used to be. Kickstarter isn’t alone; IndieGoGo, Selfstarter, and many others also enable Makers to raise money without running the venture capital gauntlet.

There’s also been an amazing drop in the cost of tooling. Not long ago, 3D printers, laser cutters, and computer-controlled milling machines were tools that enthusiasts could only dream about. Now you can get a 3D printer for a few hundred dollars, and a laser cutter for a couple of thousand. If you don’t want to own your own 3D printer, they’re starting to appear in storefronts and copy shops. Online fabrication services exist for everything from printed circuit boards to DNA. You design what you want online, click a button, and a few weeks later, a batch of PC boards, or 3D printed parts, or plasmids with custom DNA, arrive. This isn’t new, but it’s becoming easier all the time. Autodesk has apps for your iPad that let you design for a 3D printer; you can easily send the design to the copy shop or library for production.

In the 20th-century economy, one barrier to starting a new business was establishing a sales channel. That’s another problem that’s been solved recently. There are new outlets and sales channels that specialize in micro-manufacturing. Etsy is the most well known; Tindie is a newer entry that caters to electronics; and I believe we will see many more online marketplaces specializing in small manufacturers.

There’s more at stake in re-invigorating small manufacturing than just adding to the economy. Several years ago, I was in a meeting with Bunnie Huang, founder of Chumby, where he said that the United States had lost the engineering skills needed to do manufacturing. The engineers needed to do product development, to take a raw design and figure out how to produce it, no longer existed in the U.S., at least in sufficient numbers to support a manufacturing economy. As manufacturing had gone offshore, so had the people who knew how to do it. A product like the iPhone isn’t manufactured in China because it’s cheaper; it’s manufactured in China because that kind of manufacturing just can’t be done in the United States. Part of a reboot of American manufacturing means home-growing the product engineering and development smarts that we’ve lost over the years; and professional Making, Makers turning their ideas and passions into products, is necessary to re-develop the talent and experience that are in short supply.

If you’re a professional maker, we’d like to hear your story. What kind of a business are you running? Do you have, or foresee having, employees? What kind of an impact has your business had on your community? I’ve seen too many small towns going to ruin around an abandoned factory. The people with the skills are still there, but the jobs left years ago. Can the Maker movement make an appreciable change in local economies? And if small numbers of makers can contribute to a local economy, what can the entire movement do for the national economy?

We’re waiting for your answers.

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