The Origins of the Movement - The World of the Maker - The Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

PThe Maker's Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution 1st Edition (2015)

Part I. The World of the Maker

Chapter 2. The Origins of the Movement

Humans have been makers since the dawn of our history. In fact, you could say human history began because we were such prodigious makers. Today, we are experiencing a renaissance in Do It Yourself (DIY) technology: the old maker tools of hammers, chisels, pliers, and tongs are being augmented by tablet computers, collaborative software, crowdsourcing, and desktop manufacturing. Sometimes the act of “making” is more digital, and all of these tools are replaced by a small portable computer.

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Figure 2-1. A hackerspace plate in a picture by Vargson

The last ten years have seen the growth of hackerspaces, makerspaces, and Fab Labs: workshops where lovers and creators of technology, mechanics, interaction, and art could meet, share their knowledge, and collaborate to create diverse objects. In these places, it is possible to find--and use--equipment that is typically not available to individuals due to its high cost: drill presses, welding equipment, laser cutters, 3D printers, and more. With a reasonably priced gym-like subscription, anyone could access the equipment, which democratizes production of things. It was the high initial cost needed to set up these spaces that, in the beginning, limited the expansion of this phenomenon, since only a few big institutions were able to finance this kind of workshop.

Today there are thousands such places. Even though they are typically to be found in universities and other institutions, commercial hackerspaces/makerspaces are growing. The most famous is TechShop, which, as of this writing, has eight locations open in the United States.

The Culture of Sharing

The spread of digital technologies in the maker community and makerspaces has allowed the early adopters to be active in open source software projects, or at least to be familiar with them and share their philosophy. Sharing and collaborating are at the basis of the early communities that were taking shape within these spaces, which allowed them to then expand and reach the most remote areas of the globe thanks to the Internet.

Many technologies that are adopted within these spaces can be dangerous if not used properly. Therefore it is usual, before accessing the equipment, to attend training courses normally given by other enthusiasts. Training lets you understand a topic thoroughly, and is even important with activities without inherent danger, such as programming a microcontroller. Many makerspaces and hackerspaces have a culture based on a virtuous circle where mentors and students exchange roles, being a teacher on one topic and a student on another.

The Triumph of Technology

The easy access to digital technologies has fostered the spread of a new culture of making: sharing information--thanks to the internet--brings the manufacture of artifacts, even complex ones, within anybody’s reach. Today we have the opportunity to turn our ideas into objects, passing from bits to atoms with a click of the mouse. We can access the power of a factory from our room, from a train, from the park.

The quick manufacturing offered by the new technologies allows for time and cost reduction when making an object, giving people with little experience and capital the opportunity to have a quick feedback on various prototypes, thus fostering the incremental development process that is typical of a good project.

See, for example, the Gossamer Condor in “The Value of Quick Iteration”.

The Fab Labs

In the late 1990s, Neil Gershenfeld, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), realized that his students were well prepared on theory, yet didn’t know how to actually make objects--so in 1998, he created a course called “How to make (almost) anything”.

In that course, he taught his students how to make small electronic circuits, how to program microcontrollers, how to use Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machines, laser cutters, and other tools. The “almost” in the course title relates to, on one hand, the limits of the tools and materials; on the other, to a number of shared values. Throughout the course, Gershenfeld realized that his students were using the equipment for their own purposes, rather than for their assigned projects. The creativity of those young students came as an extremely nice surprise: one student raised the curiosity of his fellow students by making a bicycle with traditional works and a frame made of laser-cut Plexiglas; another student, who used to feel discomfort when people invaded her personal space, created a smart dress that could lift spikes every time someone got too close to her back.

Another student even created a cartoon-like soundproof backpack, in which she could scream and vent without anyone noticing, to then later release the recorded scream once out of the room.

From this experience, in 2002 the first Fab Lab was born. Fab Lab is short for “fabrication laboratory,” a workshop where things are manufactured, but also for “fabulous laboratory.” Gershenfeld has taken the Fab Lab culture around the world, helping local populations solve the issues of their communities: from the Norwegian shepherd who can locate his sheep on the mountains at the end of the grazing season thanks to a short-range radio transmission system, to the Indian farmers’ village that doesn’t have enough money to buy a tractor and makes do by adapting a motorbike, to the African farmer who pumps water out of the well by means of solar power. All these stories are collected in the book FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, by Gershenfeld himself.

The Spread In the Media

In 2005, O’Reilly Media published the first issue of Make:, a magazine that today is the point of reference for the entire community of makers. Each issue includes articles and explanations, books and tools reviews and, most of all, lots of projects, from the most simple to the most complex ones: a speaker in a cereal box, a rocket, a device that can throw the dog its ball when you’re tired. The typical project can be carried out over a weekend, even though some can take much longer: for example a makers’ laboratory made from scratch has taken three issues. Most issues have their own theme: games, robotics, space, 3D printing, remote controls and many others. Moreover, there are often articles for beginners which explain, step by step, the basics of different techniques as well as impossible challenges where, with a few (very few!) objects, the reader has to cope with the most absurd situations, nearly like being the ground crew on the Apollo 13 mission, minus the pressure of actually being there.

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Figure 2-2. Visitors at the Maker Faire Bay Area in 2013 (Alfredo Morresi)

One of the strong points of the magazine is its social aspect: many articles describe parent-child projects that can be easily carried out in a garage. Here, creating something together can bond a relationship that is crucial for the child’s growth; other articles explain team projects.

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Figure 2-3. There are all sort of things at the Maker Faire Bay Area (Alfredo Morresi

To stress this social aspect even more, at the end of 2005, after publishing the first four issues of MAKE, on a late evening in the office, Dale Dougherty--one of the founders of the magazine--asked: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get all these makers together in one place to share what they make?”. It was a brilliant idea, and in 2006 the first Maker Faire took place in San Mateo. There, over 100 makers exhibited their creations. Since then, the Faire has grown every year (with over 1,100 Makers and 130,000 attendees) and Mini Maker Faires have popped up all over the world. In 2013, the first European Maker Faire landed in Rome, and worldwide, there were one hundred Maker Faires that year.