Are makerspaces the answer to western manufacturing?

By Kyle McInnes on 22 Jun 2014 02:00 pm

This week, the White House hosted its first Maker Faire and announced that Americans need "to be makers of things, not just consumers of things." While we have always had engineers, hobbyists and tinkers, the maker movement is taking off. Reasons for the recent maker community growth is likely due to economies of scale reducing hardware costs, software becoming more versatile, and recent innovations like 3D printers .

But what are makers? It's important to differentiate between fantasy and reality because we need to be honest about this movement if we're going to reap the economic rewards we're being told exist. Those who are the biggest proponents of maker communities will say that makers bring hardware and software together to create products, prototypes and works of art. The skeptics will tell you it's a community of hobbyists and tinkerers.

Recently, Kickstarter announced a new sub-category devoted to makerspaces to help further the growth of maker communities. Makerspaces are another part of this movement that seem to be unclear in purpose or sustainability. If you throw a 3D printer in a room and add a couple desks, is that a makerspace? On the other hand, if you're an accredited investor, you could bring TechShop to your city for at least $25,000. What is the best implementation of a makerspace and how do we fund them?

Not only has Obama jumped on the makerwagon, but cities in Canada are on board too. In Ottawa Canada, I could find eight in a city of less than a million people. These makerspaces range from a small studio with a couple of 3D printers, to an enormous, government planned facility with $30M in funding.

So what we have is a growing community, investments in infrastructure and a glowing promise of economic rewards such as innovation and jobs. Personally, I'm skeptical. I'm skeptical of the mentality that seems too pervasive in the maker community of "if you build it, they will come." There is a small group of people in the maker community that are going to build value. They're engineers, university students, and a handful of talented people.

The only way these makerspaces are going to be sustainable is with a private funded incubator approach to creating hardware startups. The retired engineers playing with Arduino boards aren't going to create any economic value. Buying a 3D printer for your school isn't going to magically induce a wave of entrepreneurship. We should be critical and honest about what we're building and use these tools to build real companies. Only then, once we've stopped treating everyone like a potential Thomas Edison, can we really understand how the maker community is going to bring the wave of economic stimulus and innovation that we keep cheering for.

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Are makerspaces the answer to western manufacturing?