By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor

Maker MovementA wealth of cutting-edge trends and technologies are shaping the future of American manufacturing and transforming how companies are designing and building their innovative product offerings.

However, one stands out among the rest due to its potential to fundamentally redefine the industry in the years to come by democratizing access to manufacturing tools and equipment. It is known as the Maker Movement, and it describes a loose network of independent inventors, designers and tinkerers who design and manufacture their products through informal, peer-led and shared learning experiences.

“We live in an era now where you can pick up the skills you need to create a prototype, to launch a company in weeks, not months, not years, and you certainly don’t need a massive team and millions of dollars to do it anymore,” said Mark Hatch, general partner, Network Society Ventures, a New York-based seed stage global venture investment firm. 

Maker Movement manufacturing itself occurs in what are commonly referred to as “makerspaces,” physical locations constructed as environments meant to be conducive to creative, do-it-yourself-style inventing and building. According to Hatch, these spaces come in three distinct forms:

  • Fab Labs/Hackerspaces – Often thought of as a type of makerspace, fab labs and hakerspaces often share a core set of digital fabrication and prototyping tools, and they emphasize making using digital technology, such as laser cutters, vinyl cutters, CNC routers and 3D printers.
  • Makerspaces – Broadly speaking, these are spaces where people can design and invent among a community of other makers, all of whom incorporate a number of 21st-century skills like creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. Normally about 5,000-10,000 square feet in size, they also offer interdisciplinary, participatory and peer-supported learning environments.
  • Innovation Centers – Generally 20,000 square feet or more in size, these facilities often include specialty equipment for a certain area of focus. Examples include biotechnology, nanotechnology, 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

Impacting Communities

Constructing one of these types of facilities and providing open access to tools and equipment can positively impact a community in a number of significant ways, as a number of cities – both large and small – have discovered in recent years. According to Hatch, establishing makerspaces in the Bay Area alone has yielded $6 billion in local shareholder value and resulted in 2,000 jobs paying $200 million in annual salaries. Prominent facilities of similar design can also be found in St. Louis, Munich, Berkeley, California and several other U.S. cities.

“Innovation is getting cheaper and easier, and it’s a powerful force for positive change,” said Hatch. “What this means is we’re going to move the people who can innovate from a small percentage of the population to basically anyone who has a hankering to use a tool. (Now) they can come in and use tools in these spaces.”

According to Hatch, many community-based, open-access facilities allow for anyone 16 years of age or older to come in, receive basic safety training and then get building something using a vast array of tools and equipment almost immediately.

In the above video, students from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland speak about their experiences with a local makerspace and their impressions of the facility.

“We do it like your dad might’ve,” explained Hatch. “Want to learn how to weld? Great. Let’s go out to the barn. I’ll show you the tools. I’ll lay down a few beads, then you lay down a few beads.”

Hatch said he is aware of a number of examples where individuals have gained access to a makerspace, completed three or four classes inside of a week or two, and then promptly launched an entire company built upon the work they have done in the facility.

“Ninety minutes in front of a welding machine and you are off and running,” said Hatch. “Now, trust me, your welds are going to be terrible, but often that is all you need to get started or move your prototype to the next stage.”

Impacting Companies – Both New and Established

Several prominent start-up ventures emerged as a result of time spent in a makerspace. According to Hatch, examples include the mobile payment device company Square, and MakerBot, a connected 3D printing solutions provider founded by a former junior high school art teacher.

While makerspaces are seen as environments well-suited for launching start-ups, major companies are beginning to align themselves with the Maker Movement and constructing facilities for their employees to design, innovate and build. According to Hatch, GE is opening small innovation centers in most of its manufacturing plants, while Ford is building them in the vast majority of its facilities. Other examples, he said, include Autodesk, Lowe’s and National Instruments.

The efforts put forth by these companies to foster creativity and entrepreneurial activity among their respective workforces, along with those of other groups and organizations to develop and construct makerspaces, hint at a bright future for manufacturing where more and more young people will be inspired to follow their passion for designing and building the products of tomorrow.

“You talk about ‘Made in America’?” said Hatch. “(With the Maker Movement), we'll have the largest explosion of innovation and creativity the world has ever seen. We will be able to convince kids as young as 8, 9 and 10 years old that they can make things, and that they can do things that will make decent jobs in the future. It’s a revolution.”

This article's contents were adapted from a CONEXPO-CON/AGG Tech Talk, part of the show’s new 75,000-square foot Tech Experience featuring future-looking innovations that shape manufacturing.