Speaking sense about the maker movement

By Vishal Kapadia on December 31st, 2012

The maker movement has been touted as the “third industrial revolution” by Chris Anderson. The economic value of this movement relies on the premise that for the first time in history, individuals or small groups of inventors can manufacture for a 10,000-person market from the comfort of their home or a small workshop.

This is a market size large enough to make a small business but not big enough for a Sony or Samsung to get enticed by. Cumulatively, these 10,000-person markets could contribute to real and global economic development. The big question, however is whether the infrastructure, technology and markets are yet ready for such a movement.

Hardware, software, funding

Recent developments in 3D printing (on your desktop for $2,000), ever more available open source software (CADs and Arduino), and the accessibility of hardware building blocks being combined with software (Bright Eyes) suggest that we are getting closer to the infrastructure required for change to be effected.

Added to this, the increased popularity of platforms such as Kickstarter, which allow projects such as Pebble and Bright Eyes to be funded by pre-sales before even being produced, may well provide the keystone to getting people working, producing and selling their first batches of innovative products without having to consult financiers.

Hype and reality

Despite these advances, there are still questions to be asked about the readiness of both the supply side to produce truly valuable goods and the consumer side to start to purchase them in sufficient volume.

While journalists tend to promote the hype, few look at how strong the actual barriers are for an average individual to become a producer. At first glance, $2,000 sounds like a significantly accessible price point, but without the right CAD templates, an understanding of materials being used and training infrastructure around both, where does this get the average wannabe manufacturer?

Similarly, although hardware is getting cheaper (consider the range of components in an iPhone – gyroscope, GPS chip, camera, microphone, speakers, WiFi chip, processor, etc.), an understanding of how to combine and program these bespoke hardware pieces is critical to create meaningful new inventions. Such knowledge is neither common nor cheap to acquire.

Perhaps, then, the primary facilitators of the maker movement will be collectives such as Technology Will Save Us in London, or Betahaus in Berlin, where knowledge sharing and co-working can produce great results. It would not be a far cry to draw parallels between the maker movement and the collaborative consumption movement, where it is not necessary for individuals to own all the components required, simply to be able to have access to the production facilities in these workshops, paying only for what they use.

Augmenting the old

It is still early days for the maker movement, but there are some trends that can already be observed. A quick browse of Shapeways, the online printing community, displays a large number of novelty items, with the more innovative products not so much reinventing the way we live as augmenting our relationships with what we already use. (Products range from iPad stands to 3D-printed sunglasses and art).

This echoes the development of Bright Eyes, which lies between novelty and breakthrough disruptive technology, aiming more to excite people about the capabilities of combining multiple components with relatively simple Arduino programming (and more complex stuff for those interested).

Similarly, there is excitement to be found in smaller innovations, such as the application of the material sugru to fix or change products, or the platform Quirky, which turns the funding element of production on its head with no costs to the inventor, only royalties. The latter specialises in products which are just useful by design but, as the website suggests, “quirky”, ranging from egg yolk movers to their most popular product, a flexible power strip.

These sorts of inventions are not going to be scaring Apple, but they show a growing interest in innovative and simple bespoke products, which seem to appeal to significant enough micro-markets. But it’s more about incremental innovation at this stage.

More to come

The reality is that the infrastructure, both in terms of market development and distribution and in terms of creation are nascent and growing. This means that we will have to wait before the maker movement really “arrives”.

What seems apparent to me is that there is a perfect storm brewing between hardware and software development, infrastructure both physical and virtual and interested parties both as creators and eventual consumers, which mean that the significant influence of a maker movement is becoming a question of when, not if.

When we consider the impact of such trends with the complementary developments of devices like the Raspberry Pi and the upcoming Google Glasses project, certainly there is a lot to be excited about.

There was a fine quote by Russell Davies at the NEXT technology conference in Berlin earlier this year: “Every truly interesting technology will be called pointless.” It is certainly hard to know where the breakthrough innovations will come without hindsight, but I for one am excited to keep my attention on this space.