Makers: Tech-Savvy Tinkerers
By Mark Kleszczewski
Individual inventing, experimenting and taking on do-it-yourself projects have been an ongoing tradition from the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution to the personal computer era and beyond.
Though it may have waned during the advent of mass production and low-cost foreign goods, the desire and knowledge to tinker and make things has come back in a big way in recent years. Fueled by advances in technology and communication, the impulse to create tangible items has led to a growing “maker movement” and the emergence of so-called fab labs, hackerspaces and makerspaces where members can access sophisticated tools, share expertise and test new products.
Now numbering more 200 physical locations across the United States and Canada, makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes: from volunteer-based co-ops and co-working hubs to for-profit chains featuring hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment and participation from multinational corporations.
Areas of focus typically include metal machining, woodworking, electronics and computer programming. The spaces and the groups behind them are different, but most focus on offering design, assembly and manufacturing resources that are flexible, customizable and affordable. That helps makers reiterate and improve their hardware ideas more quickly.
However, the spaces are about more than just personal creativity or fabrication. Many are also places where users can take advantage of shared resources to turn their technical passion into a business. Not every idea leads to monetary success, but the movement’s economic potential is garnering the support of communities and capturing the interest of companies looking for talent and innovation.
Makerspace leaders emphasize that idea sharing, collaboration and community building are key values that stand behind their success.
“Makerspaces are akin to a gym membership for artistic and technology creative types,” said Steve Yanicke, software engineer and founder of MakeHartford, during the launch of his group’s new space last year. “People show what they’re working on, and we sort of group think and problem solve. For me, it’s exciting because you can just ask questions and get answers.”
At Toronto’s MakeWorks, which aims to be Canada’s leading co-working space and shared R&D lab, the fusion of an open-concept co-working environment, prototyping and electronics lab, and makerspace under one roof advances innovation and collaboration like no other site in the country, explains Teddy Shropshire, facilities manager, MakeWorks.
“For the right kind of business, it makes total sense,” Shropshire says. “If you’re creating a product, we have all that you need for prototyping and can be your one-stop-shop for everything short of final manufacturing. Yet networking, cross-pollinating new ideas and collaborating is what our space is really all about.
“Originally we thought that we’d have to focus on bringing in a lot of tools, equipment and supplies,” Shropshire says, “but it turned out that there was also a big demand for desk space, so to adapt to people’s needs, we started the co-working studio. For 2015, the plan is for us to expand, and that includes building partnerships with universities and incubator space. We’ve already started a great crossover initiative with the Ontario College of Art and Design and look forward to doing more.”
For regions and communities, the maker movement can also be an effective supplement to formal workforce training and a way to spark local innovation, small business growth and engagement with larger companies.
For example, Fab Lab is the educational outreach component of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), an extension of its research into digital fabrication and computation. One of its newest offshoots is the Fab Academy, an internationally distributed campus for technical education that emerged from the Fab Lab program and provides a training path for new fab lab managers.
Also leading the way is TechShop, a chain of community-based workshops and prototyping studios across the country whose mission is to democratize access to the tools of innovation. In Pittsburgh, TechShop offers the local maker community more than 16,000 square feet of workshops equipped with world-class tools and equipment, computers loaded with design software, monthly classes and the support and camaraderie of a community of like-minded makers.
The facility provides members access to a wide variety of machines, tools and processes, including: milling machines and lathes, Epilog laser cutters, sheet metal equipment, welding equipment, an indoor automotive work bay, woodworking equipment including a 4 feet by 8 feet CNC ShopBot router, plastics working equipment, hand tools, a 3-D printer, a computer-controlled vinyl cutter, sewing machines and lots more, explains Matt Verlinich, general manager, TechShop Pittsburgh.
“We’re right in the midst of Pittsburgh’s arts corridor, and definitely seeing a lot of demand among artists, hobbyists and entrepreneurs from all over the local community,” Verlinich says. “Tools have gotten more powerful yet affordable, but the most integral part of this is getting enjoyment from bringing creations to life, no matter what discipline you’re in.”
One of the biggest examples of the power of maker-centric partnerships is the Ford Motor Co.’s Employee Patent Incentive Program, which has provided nearly 2,000 employee inventors with a three-month free membership to TechShop Detroit. The company reports that participation in the program has in part led to 50 percent more patentable ideas by Ford employees in the past year alone.
Going Beyond Gadgets
Although makerspaces cater to hobbyists and tinkerers who like to make things for their own personal enjoyment or are looking to improve their technical skills, entrepreneurs and startups are finding that makerspaces can act as quick and cost-effective incubators for new ideas and products — some of which can reach millions in market value.
Two of the most notable examples are Square — the credit card processing device that originated in a San Francisco TechShop, and MakerBot — a manufacturer of consumer 3-D printers that was developed in a New York City hackerspace, then acquired by industry leader Stratasys for more than $400 million in early 2013.
As a result, the movement is attracting interest from investors. According to The Grommet, the product launch platform behind consumer hits such as SodaStream and Fitbit, venture capitalists pumped $848 million into hardware startups — nearly twice the prior record of $442 million set in 2012.
“For economic development, makerspaces are providing a very compelling way forward,” says Justin Leto, co-founder and CFO, Nova Labs. “Especially in high-cost environments where space is expensive, storage for tools or equipment is limited and there’s a need for services like small-batch assembly, the economics make a lot of sense. Plus, you can meet other founders, then go off and build a product or company together. What we’re doing is lowering the cost of innovation and giving makers a sense of ownership.
“The next step for non-profits like ours is to connect with sponsors, private equity, venture capital and angel investors to take it even further,” Leto continues.
Building a Better Future
So far only handful of states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania are involved in funding makerspaces, but it’s likely that others will join in as the movement helps lower the cost of entry for hardware entrepreneurs while also strengthening local communities.
Already cities such as Burlington, Vt., are seeing the value in alternatives to the traditional incubator model by providing shared tools, workspace, education and community events in a new makerspace called Generator, which opened this year in city-owned space.
“Specific movements come and go, but the basic phenomenon is big and growing,” said Eric von Hippel, professor of technological innovation, MIT Sloan School of Management, in a public statement. “People are not finding what they want on the market and are choosing to create what they want.”
“We see people interested in tinkering, making and evolving products because they’re passionate about them,” Leto says. “People with all kinds of backgrounds and expertise are coming together because they want to be there. The type of innovation you get from them is truly unique. I think you’re going to see a lot of those types of products in the marketplace.
“It’s hard to create a factory model for entrepreneurship and innovation, but if you were going to do it, something like what we’re building right now is worth supporting,” Leto continues. “Turning someone from a nine-to-five employee who works on a computer all day, into someone who can still do that, but also have two or three side projects, crowdsource some funds through Kickstarter, then maybe find a couple of partners and start a company, is very satisfying and one of our main strengths.”
“Integrating with the local community is resulting in two big benefits,” says TechShop’s Verlinich. “The most direct one is empowering people and helping them through the process of developing new products, starting companies and creating jobs.
“But what’s very interesting and exciting for the future is that although our primary demographic is 25-to-35 year olds, we’re capturing more and more lifelong learners and the early adopters are getting younger,” Verlinich continues. “Which is the other benefit — being part of a community of people, many having big ambitions to change the world and having the tools to do so,” he says.
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Illustration by hyena reality at Free Digital Photos.net