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Why The Maker Movement Matters To Your Business

Chris Anderson has found success in what's known as the Maker movement, and he's sure that encouraging the freedom to tinker at work will deliver rewards for any company.

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(Image: Maker Faire via Flickr)

The Freedom To Tinker

While Anderson's focus in Makers is on entrepreneurs and their growing companies, I asked him whether there might be lessons that large, established organizations could learn from the burgeoning maker movement. Anderson's affirmative answer spilled out, complete with illustrations from his own company.

First, he said, it's a mistake to think that the maker movement suddenly sprang into existence at the turn of the millennium. "This is a broad class of technology-driven social movements that have been going on for decades," Anderson said. "It falls into the category of putting powerful tools in the hands of ordinary people and seeing that they'll work magic. That's a long-standing meta-trend of the technology industry -- democratization. The maker movement is democratizing the tools of manufacturing or the tools of machining -- of physical things."

One of the key challenges -- and key benefits -- of "making" is using individual passions to inform the work they do within the organization. "What you're seeing here is a methodology that, obviously, inspires regular people -- hobbyists, students, people who just want to tinker -- and in the workplace all those employees may also have passions or ideas. But because it's not their job or not part of their professional duties, they might not do anything about it," he said. Getting people out of their job-description silos is both the hardest and the best part of the process, in Anderson's view.

The technology is now priced so that it can be used as inspiration for that broader workplace thinking. "What we find is that, as the tools get smaller and cheaper and easier to use, you can sprinkle them around the company," Anderson said. "Why shouldn't everybody have access to a 3D printer -- even the receptionist? Why shouldn't you have vinyl cutters as broadly spread as laser printers? Why shouldn't people have a budget where they can get a maker tool to play with, without any professional promise that they're going to deliver anything? They're cheap, they're easy, they're small, so what we're starting to see is on our desktops at the office these things are starting to pop up."

Anderson wants the desktop prototyping tools to reach the same level of ubiquity now seen for desktop printers and phones. "When someone has a small inkjet printer on their desk, the first questions aren't, 'Are you an engineer? Do you know how to use that? Did you requisition it?' Sure, why not?" he said.

Currently, he added, "The electrical engineers are doing a little of mechanical, the mechanical engineers are doing a little electrical, they're all starting to do a bit of computer science -- they have permission to tinker," which is at the core of his ideas on makers and the enterprise.

That "permission to tinker" is at the core of the maker movement, according to Anderson. "There's no reason why it shouldn't be," he said. "In our company, anyone can requisition headphones. You know, $300 headphones are pretty good, and we could just as easily say that there's a budget for desktop fabrication tools."

What about the chaos that could result from rapid prototyping tools on every desk? Anderson suggested a community-oriented approach to solving the problems that might arise. "You want a 3D printer? Fine. Here's a list of some recommended one; here's the closet where we keep the filament; here's a list of people who can help you, and you start to encourage the Makers in the workplace," he said. "The suspicion is that you'd find they have passions and energy and creativity in areas that just weren't tapped traditionally and might turn [these passions] into products."

The truly good news, from Anderson's point of view, is that the shifts he's discussed in so many places are inevitable. "I think the answer is that this is going to happen and I don't see a lot of entrenched opposition: This is all part of the consumerization of the enterprise," he said. "There was once a time when technology began in the workplace and then infiltrated the home, and now it's reversed. This is happening at the grassroots with a much larger community than enterprise technology had."

One of the drivers behind the change is the democratizing effect of consumerization: As products become easier to use, they become accessible to more and more people. "You don't have to be professionally trained to take it advantage of the technology. You don't have to be a trained machinist and you don't have to be a mechanical engineer. In the same way that the PC and Web went beyond the IT professional what we're seeing now is a consumer-driven phenomenon which is creating a new class of inventors and innovators who are making skilled use of these tools," Anderson said. What will all of these people do with their new-found skills and abilities? He has an answer: "Some of these people are going to go into the workplace and become regular technical employees, and some are going to start their own companies. We're a perfect example of this."

The "perfect example" is a company that not only launched a consumer-friendly quad-copter but continues to bring new versions to market -- versions that compete with the state of the art from the largest drone manufacturers in Asia and Europe. The company's latest product, the Solo, brings a new level of intelligence to the consumer drone market.

In Makers, Anderson used a number of examples to illustrate how the technology and services of the maker movement can be used to make small-run markets feasible, and show why the situation today is so very different from the one that existed before affordable desktop prototyping tools were widely available.

As our conversation came to an end, Anderson used his own company as an example of what the maker mindset can create. "Two years ago I was a magazine editor and my partner was a Tijuana teenager, and now we're probably the biggest drone maker in America. We completely bypassed the aerospace industry by using the tools of the makers. Maybe the aerospace industry will start using these tools and maybe they won't. We're not waiting on Boeing to embrace open source to change what a drone can be -- we're doing it because we can."

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