By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

Mark Hatch, an expert on and advocate for the loose affiliation of builders, doers and tinkerers known as the “Maker Movement,” wants to radicalize you.

“I’m convinced we’re in the middle of the largest revolution in all of human history,” Hatch says. And as a former Green Beret trained in the execution of political and cultural uprisings, he knows what he’s talking about when he says that manufacturers can reap spectacular value if they join his guerilla campaign to equip the next generation of highly-skilled engineers, designers and workers.

“There’s actually a methodology associated with running a revolution,” Hatch says. “One of those pieces is you have to radicalize the population, so I am actually trying to radicalize people and get them to join the Maker Revolution.”

For the average Jane or Joe, getting “radicalized” in Hatch’s revolution means taking an interest in creating things with one’s own hands and experimenting with new technologies that make design and fabrication more accessible than they’ve ever been.

But for equipment manufacturers, it’s an opportunity to fundamentally reshape the approach to intellectual property development and workforce best practices, Hatch told attendees at AEM’s recent Thinking Forward conference in Grapevine, Texas. He says that the companies with which he’s consulted on the implementation of their own in-house “makerspaces” have reaped millions of dollars in windfall savings and IP development by investing in the infrastructure to give every one of their employees the opportunity to help innovate. 

How to Create a Makerspace

At its heart, Hatch says a makerspace is essentially just an open workshop with a variety of tools, which can include woodworking equipment, a laser lab, CNC routers, water cutters, metal fabricating equipment, welding gear, plastics fabricators, textiles producers and 3D printers.

“You don’t need really big, huge, fancy tools,” Hatch says. “A million dollars in tools, and you can have a makerspace that can create hundreds of millions of dollars in income or savings for your company.”

But what sets a makerspace apart from any other laboratory, Hatch says, is its accessibility to anyone who wants to learn how to use it.

“There are some really interesting things that happen when you allow anybody to innovate, rather than just the six guys in a cube in the corner who happen to be working on a thing,” Hatch says. “If you can engage your employees and give them access to the tools of innovation, they can innovate.”

For nearly a decade, Hatch was involved with TechShop, the organization responsible for launching more than a dozen makerspaces around the globe, and has consulted for corporations like Ford and GE on the launch of their own internal makerspaces. He’s also an Entrepreneur in Residence at UC Berkeley, and serves as adjunct faculty at Singularity University and the Institute for the Future.

Makerspaces Building ROI, One Weld at a Time

When he first started evangelizing for the fledgling Maker Movement, Hatch says he faced skepticism from corporate leaders about the wisdom and value of placing the tools of innovation in the hands of line workers, marketing personnel and other nontraditional sources of design inspiration.

“Today, I can go in and talk to CEOs and give them an ROI,” Hatch says.

One of his most striking anecdotes involves Ford’s initial launch of a makerspace at its facility in Dearborn, Michigan. Within the first year, he says the company registered a 200 percent increase in intellectual property development, and since 2013, he says it’s doubled yet again.

Some of those innovations have already been incorporated into finished products that have rolled off Ford’s assembly lines, Hatch says, even though they are the product of nontraditional personnel who were empowered to develop their ideas in a makerspace and pitch them to senior staff.

“Skip stage one, just go build the prototype,” Hatch says. “It’s really hard for a research and development senior VP to say, ‘that’s not going to work,’ when it’s working right in front of him on his desk.”

Communities Built on Innovation

Over the last five years, Hatch says companies like Ford and GE have launched small makerspaces in almost every one of their facilities around the world, in addition to the large flagship learning laboratories on which he consulted.

But for companies that are not quite ready to make the investment in their own makerspace, Hatch says that there are grassroots labs that are already making an impact in communities across the United States.

Some are run by nonprofit community organizations, while others are seeded as entrepreneurial incubators by local or state governments. But Hatch says community-run makerspaces not only provide manufacturers with an opportunity to better engage their employees, they also deepen the potential pool of tech-savvy workers and expose young people to the joys of working with their hands.

“These spaces are really about the community that develops around them,” Hatch says. “The equipment is critical and important, but the real magic is attracting a community of like-minded people who are creative. In our locations in the U.S. and around the world, they attract the most creative people in every city that they’re in.”

Hatch relates the tale of Samsung’s foray into makerspaces in Austin, Texas. In order to optimize employee engagement, the company purchased 150 memberships at the local makerspace for a minimal annual fee that the facility charges each of its members.

Within a couple months, Hatch says Samsung had captured $1.7 million in annualized savings as a result of the partnership—a total that rose to $7.5 million for the year, creating an order of magnitude’s worth of return on investment.

In communities like Pittsburgh, Arlington and St. Louis, growing factions of the Maker Movement are reshaping neighborhoods, attracting new residents and creating value for local employers. Hatch even noted the development outside of Dallas of an entire planned community centered around a makerspace—the soon-to-open Walsh Project.

“This is the first city built from the ground up with a makerspace in the middle of it,” Hatch says. “I’ve hypothesized that is going to change the nature of the community… it’s going to be fascinating. The kids that are going to come out of those schools are going to be, like, propeller-heads.”

The labs at the hearts of these communities have launched startups responsible for the world’s fastest electric motorcycle, the world’s leading open source underwater robot, and a portable incubation blanket that Hatch credits with saving the lives of 200,000 infants around the globe.

Faced with the disruptive potential of the growing Maker Movement, Hatch says equipment manufacturers have two choices—willfully run the risk of continuing to do business as usual, or empower their employees, embrace the future and reap the benefits by joining the Maker Revolution.

“We live in an age where you can learn how to use the tools to make almost anything in a very short period of time, and so can your employees, and so can your kids,” Hatch says. “Some of them are going to change themselves, some of them are going to change the community, and some of them are going to change the world.”