The “Maker Movement,” I’m sure you’ve all heard of it, but what exactly is it? I don’t know if there’s actually an official definition, but I think of it as the tinkerers and hobbyists of the past, with access to a whole lot more knowledge and technology thanks to the internet. Now even this is a very broad definition, but I guess you could split it up again into a couple of big categories. Those that make for themselves, and those that make for, or with others.
Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
It has always blown me away at just how many people are happy to selflessly contribute a huge proportion of their free time to sharing things they’ve learnt with others, for free, using the internet. I consider myself to fit into the “maker” persona, but I often feel the guilt of just how lazy I am when it comes to sharing my knowledge with others. I owe a lot of what I know, to the internet and the people who contribute their knowledge, but yet I give so little back. I made a conscious decision earlier this year, to try to rectify that, and that’s when I started writing articles for Design and Motion. My wife and I live a pretty busy lifestyle, so while the fortnightly posts can occasionally become a bit of a chore, the sense of satisfaction I get when I finally hit the “publish” button is a magical thing. Kind of like that one shot you hit in your last terrible round of golf, which felt so good that you know you’ll be back to play again. This to me, is the essence of what fuels the maker community. People get satisfaction from sharing what they have made with others.
Now there is a dilemma that often arises here, when you want to move from making for fun, to making for money. Many have battled with the balance of how much to give away, versus what they should protect and sell. Creative Commons and the open-source movement had, and still has many scratching their heads, wondering how on earth a business can give something away for nothing, and still make money.
One topic that I often think about, is the future of makers. If we go back in history, humans went from being fairly self-sufficient makers, to fairly dependent non-makers. We outsourced our making to mass-production. If the futurists of today are correct in their predictions, self-making on a massive scale will return to the mainstream and the industrial revolution will effectively be reversed at some point. So my question is this:
What should traditional manufacturers do, to future-proof their businesses?
I don’t have an answer for this, so I thought I’d put it to the maker community from Autodesk, along with some of my other questions.
When I was a student, my visions of my future self always placed me in someone else’s company, designing things to be made for someone else. It turned out, that I have ended up spending a fair chunk of my career so far in self-employment. I often wonder how things would be different if I had focused my energy as a student, on working towards being my own boss. The reason I say this, is with today’s channels for dissemination of information and knowledge, along with incredible accessibility to technology (you can buy just about anything online), small scale manufacturing for a large market is a very real option to make a living. The internet allows people that have “the knack” to learn more about anything they want to, purchase just about anything they need, and sell their ideas, products or services to a potentially huge number of people.
So another question:
What should we be doing to equip today’s students, to go down the path of being a maker, regardless of what sort of scale it ends up being on?
I believe that teaching students to digest and assess information critically, regardless of source, is just as important as sharing knowledge of particular topics. Ask just about any ex-student how much of what they learned in their studies, they actually use in their jobs. Most will say very little. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that all knowledge is valuable, whether you use it or not. With increasing variety and specialization though, the most valuable skills are being able to learn new things quickly, whilst maintaining rational thought and critical reasoning.
I spoke above, about the satisfaction that can be gained from sharing knowledge with others, which comes naturally for many makers who are proud to show off their creations. The other big maker satisfaction though, is simply just the satisfaction in creating something. Typically, when making something for one’s self, the end result is often a prototype of sorts. Something which was made with the materials that were readily available, using methods that were not necessarily very efficient, but which got the job done eventually. Even though the end result was not arrived at in the most efficient way possible, the satisfaction was still gained. When moving from making for one’s self, to making for others, efficiency quickly moves to the forefront. In my experience, a lot of tinkerer types don’t have a natural ability to find efficiency, or a desire to replicate their making in any kind of volume. Bear with me here, I do have a point, and I’ll get to it eventually.
A few years ago, I was discussing entrepreneurship with my uncle in a broad sense, and various examples of companies came up. We discussed how they differed and what we liked and disliked about each. He told me of a theory he had about a formula for a successful business. He mentioned “the 3 guys (or girls)” that need to be involved. Here they are:
Ideas Guy never settles for status quo, he is always finding better ways to do things, and constantly frustrating his friends with his practical solutions to everything. “How has no one thought of that before!?” is a common statement from his friends. While he is always asking why something can’t be done a better way, he doesn’t often know exactly his solution will be achieved.
The Ideas Guy (Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg)
The Geek is a detail guy. He agonises over technicalities and details and is sometimes mistakenly perceived to be negative or a party pooper, by finding technical problems with proposed solutions. Having said that, he’ll expend a huge amount of energy overcoming the challenges to make an idea work.
“The Other Guy”
The other guy is a very flexible persona who can sell sand to a Saharan, but also has a good feel for legal matters.
Now obviously this is a rather flexible arrangement that could have different numbers or types of people with different strengths. The key however, is that to commercialize a product, you really need a team.
So how do you go about finding this team?
Makers are an interesting bunch, some of them manage to play both the Ideas Guy and The Geek. These guys are off to a head start and often manage to get themselves started using a crowd-funding platform like kickstarter or Indiegogo to get their product off the ground.
For others, they may naturally have the team in a group of people they know, and can quickly get to work turning their elegant solution for a problem they had, into a solution for others who are willing to pay for it, in similar ways.
The vast majority however, are the lonely makers, who make for themselves, quietly share their knowledge/recipes/instructions fairly inconspicuously through blogs and forums, and only dream of one day being able to sell their product. It’s this group that I believe we need to help the most, as students, to find their team.
This brings me onto an idea that I had which would somehow combine the various aspects of commercialization of an idea. We already have great resources for makers, in a number of areas:
You can learn about just about anything online. Whether you’re browsing a maker website like Instructables to learn how to replicate someone else’s idea, or studying towards a degree in a classical subject like physics through an online university, there is no shortage of knowledge that is accessible for free.
Instructables – a website dedicated to makers
Autodesk are blazing trails when it comes to giving away design software for free, to allow anyone to explore their ideas in an almost limitless number of ways. While all Autodesk software is available to students at no charge, others are even free to anyone. Products like Fusion360 (free for enthusiasts), let people create 3D digital models of their ideas, simulate them, and even run machine tools to create the physical end result. GrabCAD is another company that has provided an amazing free platform, which allows people to share their digital models with others. Why design a certain sub-component yourself, if someone else has done it for you?
If you can’t get access to machines to bring your ideas to life, why not build a machine yourself? Many websites have are dedicated to open-source designs for machines which can be used to make just about anything. Components for making things are also readily available through a huge number of maker-focused websites. An example of this is BuildYourCNC.
Turning prototypes into saleable products requires money, and borrowed money for unproven ideas can be hard to come by through traditional channels. Online crowd-funding platforms like Indiegogo make fundraising for commercializing good ideas relatively easy. Potential customers effectively fund the development of products they like the idea of themselves.
So what’s missing?
“The Team” of course. While sites like elance.com allow companies to quickly find freelancers for contract work, I’m yet to see a site whose primary focus is in getting The “Ideas Guy”, “Geek”, and “Other Guy” together to commercialize a great idea. I’m not usually the Ideas Guy, but there’s my idea. Can someone please make it happen already….?