What to make of the ‘makers’
I thought I was getting too old to think about joining any sort of movement, particularly one with a reputation for having a bit of a cult following. I've heard murmurs about this 'maker movement' for some time now, but I've never quite got it.
For some reason I imagined it to be some kind of scrapheap challenge scenario with middle aged men turning up with welders and metal. That image is as misplaced as perhaps the mainstream view of engineers, and engineering. And it's one that I'm a little embarrassed to admit in the first place.
Last month, while at the National Instruments Week in Austin, Texas, I got to have a chat, albeit rather briefly, with the man behind one of the most successful 'makerspace' businesses in the US. An ex-green beret by the name of Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop. He explained that the maker movement is about serious and modern engineering skills and equipment. "For the cost of a serious Starbucks addiction, that's about $125 (£75) a month, you get access to some of the best design software and machine tools in the world!"
I'm not sure if it was the jetlag or the Texas sun, but I instantly loved the concept. The idea is simple: fill a warehouse full of cutting edge production tools and design software, and then run the whole thing a bit like a gym. So anyone from 10 to 90 can get a membership, go along, take classes, learn to use machines, learn to use CAD and then make stuff. From artists, to enthusiasts, engineers to the complete novice, all go along and create. Its popularity is unprecidented with it bordering on being labelled something of a sensation to its followers.
For Hatch, a big part of the TechShop ethos is about the practical side to design and make. But, he insists that members are well aware that you need to introduce sums the more ambitious you get. And whether it's to produce art, do DIY or simply just tinker, he has left TechShop and the makers that use it, to operate as a community more than a business.
For years engineers have found it difficult to convey what it is they do all day. And many students are put off, seeing engineering as theoretical and full of equations. The maker movement has so much potential to change this by giving people, both technical and non-technical, the ability to engineer and manufacture something, even if it is intially just an ashtray. That satisfaction we have all felt seeing a project through, from conception to completion, is something to share, and a powerful recruiting tool for technical industries.
TechShop is planning to open similar operations here in the UK next year, and I'm genuinely excited to see what the UK will make of the makers.
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