Hands on with the ‘maker movement’

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The so-called maker movement of do-it-yourselfers is set to continue its momentum at a global level, and as such the world will see an explosion of innovative creation from individuals, according to Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of the U.S.-based Make magazine.

Recent technological developments such as 3-D printers, inexpensive software systems and open-source microcontroller boards are facilitating the maker movement in which individuals or small groups of people outside of a factory setting craft creative projects.

The growth of the maker movement can be seen in the popularity of the Maker Faire that are popping up around the world, in which Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts get together and show off their projects.

“I think that makers themselves are very good evangelists for the maker movement,” said Frauenfelder, who recently visited Japan.

“We know that the activity of making is something that people really respond to … I do think it will continue to grow and get much bigger,” Frauenfelder told The Japan Times recently.

Maker Faire events were started by Make magazine, which was launched in 2005 and features a variety of DIY projects such as a paper rocket propelled using compressed air, a satellite that can be launched for under $10,000 and a simple Japanese-style wooden toolbox.

While the first Maker Faire in 2006, in San Mateo, California, saw about 20,000 people, the event this year attracted about 120,000. And Maker Faires are not only held in the United States, having spread to Japan, China, Britain and Germany. Maker Faire Tokyo 2012, held last December, drew 9,000 visitors and 250 makers who showed off their projects.

Frauenfelder indicated that it is almost natural that Maker Faires are getting popular worldwide. When people go to check out the event, they get to see a wide variety of projects created by makers. The creativity and variety of the projects in turn inspires visitors, who then get drawn to creating their own projects, said Frauenfelder. “Our marketing efforts are not really focused on growing the audience because the audience grows itself,” he said.

He added that while the Internet has contributed greatly to the expansion of the maker movement, in the past it actually weakened the movement. In the early days of the Internet, many creative and technical people saw the Web as a place to use their talent, so creativity was concentrated in the digital realm rather than the real world, which as a result has created ecosystems in the Internet, such as Amazon, eBay and Facebook, said Frauenfelder.

As the Internet reached a certain level of maturity, people started wanting to apply the same creativity to the physical world, while the Internet has become a powerful tool to share their projects.

“The access to information and access to other people and their knowledge has really taken off. So that really has facilitated making,” said Frauenfelder.

When looking at the recent maker movement, Frauenfelder mentioned that one of the trends is that fabrication equipment, such as 3-D printers, laser cutters and computer numerical control (CNC) machines, are all becoming more reasonably priced.

For instance, 3-D printers are already available for just several hundred dollars, although Frauenfelder said it will take more time for them to really take off.

He said that currently, the functionality of 3-D printers is still limited, including their speed and the materials with which they can print. But he believes printers will get better as time goes by: “Then it will become a truly useful thing. It will happen, but we are in a very early stage of 3-D printing,” he said.

And thanks to technological developments like 3-D printers, the boundary between individuals and large manufacturing firms in terms of what they can create is fading away, said Frauenfelder. “I’ve been calling it the end of the organizational advantage.”

“I think that the level of sophistication of the components and the materials that people have now is going to make it possible for individuals or small groups to design and build things that look identical to really slick consumer electronics projects,” he said.

The last advantage that big firms have will be economies of scale and by using that strength,they may partner with individual makers to take their innovative ideas and mass produce the products for them.

If the maker movement continues to evolve, some people say that it could lead to a new Industrial Revolution, changing the landscape of the manufacturing industry.

Asked if he thinks that way, Frauenfelder, who is a DIYer himself, said, “It could be. I hesitate to say that sometimes, because I think the spirit of making is about the reward of fulfillment you get from making things.”

Frauenfelder said that a personal project he wants to work on is to make a stick that maybe has a pendulum and microcontroller board to balance itself when it tilts to fall — what he calls a “balancing stick.” He is also writing a book that will introduce DIY projects that fathers and daughters can do together. While he has two daughters himself, and they have fun working on projects together, Frauenfelder said in general it’s hard for fathers and daughters to connect and do things they both enjoy.

“There are no books out there to help them with ideas and plans to do things that are fun together,” which is why he is writing the book, he said.