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If You Build It

How the grassroots Maker Movement may revitalize traditional manufacturing

by Blair Campbell

July 2016

Last year at the 10th annual Maker Faire Bay Area in San Mateo, California, Maker Media founder and CEO Dale Dougherty took a stroll around the grounds of the event he co-created. Playing observer at this now world-famous event—brimming with creative energy, eye-popping exhibits, and hands-on opportunities to play with new tools, technologies, and approaches to design and fabrication—Dougherty ran into more than a few adults eagerly tapping into their inner child. More significantly, however, he ran into kids and young adults who had grown up attending the faire—which is so family-friendly that more than half of its attendees bring their children.

“I ran into people who said, ‘Let me introduce you to my son or daughter. They first came here 10 years ago, when they were 10. And now they’re in college doing this, and it’s been an important part of their lives,’” recalls Dougherty. He later wrote about the experience on Medium, reflecting on the fact that his grandson had just attended the faire for the first time. “I know I see Henry and his own creative development differently than I saw in my own children because of Maker Faire,” Dougherty wrote. “I see my grandchild as a maker.”


The maker phenomenon may seem a world away from traditional manufacturing and the challenges the industry faces, as it adopts transformative technologies in the face of economic headwinds and increasing globalization. But the Maker Movement may hold tremendous promise for the industry, in the form of a new generation raised on the idea that if they can dream it, they can build it. To cultural observers, that’s a trend. But to the manufacturing industry, it’s the bright shining hope of fresh ideas and a future workforce.

Citizen Manufacturers

The Maker Movement began in 2005 when Dougherty launched MAKE magazine, a bimonthly print and digital publication geared toward DIY and DIWO (do-it-with-others) independent “tinkerers.” From the start, MAKE strongly emphasized the use of technology as a means to help its readers design and build. A year after its launch, MAKE publisher Maker Media held the first annual Maker Faire, and in 2016 more than 190 Maker Faires will take place around the world—including about 100 in the US. The four biggest faires have hit or are gaining on the 100,000-attendee mark: those in San Francisco, California; New York City; Rome, Italy; and Shenzhen, China.

To their many devotees, the faires function as celebrations of the joy to be found in producing rather than consuming. They are also showcases for innovative maker projects and the latest in cutting-edge fabrication technologies—laser cutters, 3-D printers, CNC cutting machines, and much more.

Manufacturing is being transformed into a creative industry. That’s not how they think about their industry, and it changes a lot.”–Dale Dougherty, Founder and CEO, Maker Media

To Bob Monahan, vice president of product management for Oracle’s JD Edwards business unit, technological innovation isn’t just a defining element of the Maker Movement. It also provides an apt analogy for the impact the movement may have on traditional manufacturing. Looking at what software applications—mobile apps in particular—have done to disrupt and transform the service sector, Monahan sees the Maker Movement as having the potential to make a similar impact in the physical world.

“Software and the internet opened the door to allow individuals to be innovative and create and globally publish their own videos, music, and new service applications such as booking travel, getting a taxi, and banking and financial transactions—to name just a few,” says Monahan. “In a similar concept, the Maker Movement is empowering entrepreneurs and innovators to create and make new physical items in industries such as manufacturing.”

While Monahan emphasizes the highly sophisticated tools and techniques already in use in the industry, especially in the area of robotics, he also sees potential for outsourcing new ideas and innovations to makers who are currently creating their own products outside of traditional manufacturing. Just as software startups have long been prime sources of intellectual property and acquisition and patent potential, maker startups may increasingly fill that same role for manufacturers.

Makers may be the term du jour for this community of inventors, but Monahan also likes to think of them as citizen manufacturers. And he believes that citizen manufacturers within the Maker Movement have started to shift some manufacturing R&D from the realm of large corporations, universities, and government-funded research programs to individual citizens. “Millions of new citizen manufacturers greatly expand the number of possible new research projects, creating an additional wealth of new ideas that can be shared at Maker Faire events or online community forums—creating new patents, and some promising ideas attracting financial funding to further develop their new products,” he says.

Going a step further, manufacturers can directly tap the source of these innovative new ideas by bringing new talent onboard—and they’d be well served by targeting young makers who already have extensive experience working with a wide range of materials and development tools and technologies.

“I feel the Maker Movement will raise the level of confidence and competence in people entering the workforce. Our starting point will be raised,” says Neil Heeke, engineering manager at Denver, Colorado–based Laser Technology, Inc. (LTI), a leading producer of laser-based measurement tools. “It’s more than just enthusiasm.”

Indeed Heeke, who actively recruits local college and university students for LTI jobs and internships, believes maker concepts and technologies make sense in the development environment, allowing immediate feedback on design concepts, reducing development cycle times, and saving on prototype costs. “These successes will naturally propel the industry forward,” he says.

Learning by Doing

So you’ve got a generation raised on the joys of designing and building, hungry for workplace opportunities to play with the technologies they love and to discover still more tools and techniques that can foster their creativity. How can traditional manufacturers speak their language, invite them in, and help them grow? How can their enthusiasm be harnessed?

One fundamental way is to embrace their approach to learning. “You could say the Maker Movement is about the democratization of technology, meaning it’s cheaper, more accessible, more affordable,” says Maker Media’s Dougherty. “But it’s also a kind of democratization of learning. The internet is allowing us to learn in new ways, learn from each other, and learn technical skills that used to be hard to acquire.”

“Now someone just shows you the musical instrument, or a drill press, and says, ‘Here’s information about it,’” Dougherty continues. “Well, you want to touch that thing. You want to hold it, you want to learn how to use it. And I think that’s part of the appeal here. It’s more applied learning, or applied knowledge, that is almost being rediscovered by the Maker Movement. This is a rich vein that engages people in science and technology.”

For an industry that may have leaned on formal training in the past, this could require a cultural change. Oracle’s Monahan acknowledges that the DIY approach is crucial for manufacturers to understand and embrace. “It’s moving from much more theoretical to half or three quarters of your engineering class is going to be do-it-yourself, build the thing, and show it,” Monahan says of college and university courses.

Along with this shift in engineering and design classes away from a heavy emphasis on theoretical learning toward a more practical learning-by-doing approach, Monahan predicts the Maker Movement may well drive further professional development throughout the course of one’s career—by providing platforms and tools that allow continued hands-on learning, as new tools and techniques evolve and become available. “Our entire way of learning throughout our lifetime will be impacted by this do-it-yourself culture,” he says.

Of course that DIY culture shows up most prominently in the production model that the Maker Movement has thrived on: small numbers of people who are working in makerspaces—community centers that provide tools, equipment, and educational resources to individuals undertaking projects that would be difficult to complete alone. And while the contrast between a makerspace and a large-scale manufacturing plant may be stark, Dougherty sees the maker model as influencing the industry in a number of positive ways.


Number of Maker Faires taking place around the world in 2016


“I think manufacturing is being transformed into a creative industry,” he says. “That’s not how they think about their industry, and it changes a lot. Instead of making millions of one thing, I think we’ll begin to see manufacturing as really including things like customization and personalization, and making things in small batches.” Dougherty adds that in manufacturing terms, traditional companies need to be flexible to be able to create new kinds of products quickly, and to work with small companies or individuals that come to them with ideas.

“I think particularly in America, what we need more is the ability to make 1,000 of something. Make 10,000 of something. And then make 100,000 or a million of something. But not necessarily starting off at that million level,” says Dougherty. “We also see companies building their own makerspaces, so that their R&D can take advantage of these tools to do rapid prototyping and produce items that they can look at and touch and pass around, rather than just working with 3-D models on computer screens.”

Monahan again sees a software analogy—the hackathon phenomenon—for what might be possible as manufacturing becomes more maker-friendly.

“Within Oracle’s JD Edwards space and at other companies in Silicon Valley, hackathons are a way to give people time to work on innovative products that may be on their minds,” says Monahan. He notes that Lyle Ekdahl, group vice president and general manager of Oracle’s JD Edwards business unit, is a big supporter of activities that encourage a creative spirit within the JD Edwards group. “We dedicate several weeks a year where we allow our developers to go off and work on hackathon-related innovative new software capabilities that may eventually flow into JD Edwards,” says Monahan. “It keeps people very enthusiastic about wanting to come and work. It’s not always that you’re being told what you have to do. You may have a really great idea, and the company is letting you explore that.”

Extending that concept to the manufacturing world, Monahan sees potential for manufacturing hackathons, where engineers are given free rein to build whatever they want. “Maybe it’s like, ‘Hey, I got this great idea at a Maker Faire,’ and really keep that percolation of ideas going.”

To Roger Harris, vice president and general manager at MSS Technologies and a past president of APICS Colorado, where he teaches supply chain management courses, the challenge is not only to emphasize the fact that the technologies and methodologies favored by makers can be found in traditional manufacturing. It’s also to erase an old image of manufacturing that belies the kind of innovation the industry currently represents.

“They need to understand that manufacturing today is not smokestack industries; it’s not grit on the wall and the floor,” says Harris. “Manufacturing takes a lot of forms, but even your dirtiest manufacturing is a very clean, high-tech shop in today’s world. You go into a weld shop and you’re going to see very high-tech equipment. You’re going to see a good working environment.”

Sharing Is Caring

In Dougherty’s view, a defining quality of the Maker Movement—and one that may have major reverberations in the manufacturing world—is sharing.

“It’s the sharing of ideas, sharing of designs, and sharing of objects, and to some degree, that leads to collaboration,” says Dougherty. “If I’m sharing things, I find someone else who is interested in that, and begins contributing back.”

The maker economy is going to have an influence and completely change the old school, where the attitude is, ‘I’ve got my arms tightly around my intellectual property, there’s not going to be any open source.’”–Bob Monahan, Vice President of Product Management, Oracle’s JD Edwards business unit

More and more, adds Dougherty, this is showing up in what he calls collaborative production, or coproduction, wherein a network of people, not necessarily in the same place, are designing something together, which can then be fabricated in different places local to the consumer. These designs may be developed by individuals or groups, and the design can be shared as a digital file—which enables fabrication to happen in multiple, distributed locations.

He offers the example of the crowd-funded London, England, firm Opendesk. Functioning more as a network and platform than as a manufacturer, Opendesk ( hosts furniture designs intended for digital fabrication—CNC machining, 3-D printing, or laser cutting—from a range of international designers. These designs can be downloaded and built local to customers, by member-makers who get the opportunity to bid on these jobs once a customer has chosen a design.

It mimics the open source model of software development, but as Dougherty emphasizes, “open source doesn’t have to mean free.” It can be, he says—but in the Opendesk model, while the design is open source, customers are going to pay for both the design and the fabrication. And ultimately, both the designer and the fabricator will get a higher percentage of revenue than they would via traditional manufacturing methods.

Extending an open source approach to manufacturing, says Monahan, could portend an industry sea change. “It very much could be that the maker economy is going to have an influence and completely change the old school, where the attitude is, ‘I’ve got my arms tightly around my intellectual property, there’s not going be any open source. I’m keeping it to myself,’” says Monahan. Open source physical properties may be the wave of the future, he continues—with an engineer building, say, a robot that other engineers are welcome to tinker with and further develop. So that same collaborative spirit that has long supported open source software may soon show up in the form of open hardware, open manufacturing, and open robotics.

This relates to what Dougherty calls additive innovation, which allows makers and manufacturers to add to an idea or project by building on top of it. So, rather than having “100 different versions of the same thing out there,” the focus is on improving one concept.

“That may just be the next evolution,” says Monahan. “We saw this in the services sector. We see this in the manufacturing sector. We don’t see a lot of it today, but who knows what five years might bring as this maker economy builds and gets more steam. People might say, ‘That’s just open source, and if somebody wants to use what would’ve been my idea, go ahead and use it.’ Sharing and collaboration are the new norm.”

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