The maker movement—that group of innovative folks who like to build or customize everything from musical instruments to 3D printed electric cars—has never been a mainstream phenomenon. Nor has it been something that’s been a threat to most businesses. Generally speaking, it’s been about passionate hobbyists having fun building things they enjoy and leveraging all the amazing technological tools they have at their disposal.
What has started to happen recently, however, is a series of innovations across a wide range of technical, social, and even business-related areas I believe will set the stage for a potential explosion of completely new kinds of products and maker-driven companies over the next few years.[pullquote]A series of innovations across a wide range of technical, social, and even business-related areas have set the stage for a potential explosion of completely new kinds of products and maker-driven companies over the next few years.”[/pullquote]
At a technical level, you’ve got things like low cost 3D printing, single board computers (a la Raspberry Pi and Intel Galileo), drones, sensors, easy to use programming languages, and even companies building low cost circuit board printers. In fact, Raspberry Pi recently announced they expect to ship their four millionth board by the end of this year.
On the “social” front, there’s the enormous growth in popularity of things like the Maker Faire (over 130,000 people attended the last San Francisco Bay Area event and 1.5 million have been at Maker Faires around the world), where people are getting introduced to these new ideas. In schools, competitions like the robotics-focused FIRST events have become very popular. There’s also the growing success of maker-inspired toys, like Lego Mindstorms. Finally, the new workforce generation—the millennials—are showing strong interest in working for themselves and on their own terms. These maker-inspired companies are likely a perfect match for many of these new workers.
On the business side, we’ve seen the development of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which allow individuals or very small companies to get funding to develop their products/ideas in very effective ways. Alongside this, we’re seeing increased consumer interest in specialization and personalization across many different types of devices—a perfect fit for makers who can succeed by focusing on specialization. On the marketing side, the innovative use of social media is completely redefining how products and ideas are coming to market, enabling low cost ways to quickly and effectively reach large scale audiences. Finally, given the widespread acceptance of e-commerce, it’s very easy for individuals and small companies to sell directly to their end customers without having to worry about the hassles of distribution, retail storefronts, etc.
Put all these things together and it’s hard not to imagine we are poised for some truly revolutionary new products and new companies, all of which will be able to trace their roots back to the maker movement. Now, you could argue many of these capabilities have been around for some time. While that may be true to some degree, each of these three areas—technical, social and business—have evolved significantly over the last few years. As a result, the level of sophistication and reach now possible for these kinds of concepts easily moves this from being an interesting hobby to some incredible new businesses. Want to design and burn your own custom ASIC, place it on a custom printed circuit board, program it, and then house it in a 3D-printed enclosure of your own making? No problem…
We’ve come a long way from simple weekend soldering projects. The fact you can now come up with an idea for almost anything and then go create it shows you how far this movement has come. In fact, we’re even seeing the creation of businesses, like TechShop, that are allowing people to prototype or build their own device ideas by giving them access to a range of sophisticated tools including 3D printers, machine shops, wood shops, and more, without having to make the substantial investment this would otherwise require.
I hate to sound clichéd, but the possibilities with makers are truly limitless. It’s exciting to think about it, and it’s going to be even more exciting to experience the fruits of their efforts. As the makers start to move mainstream, they will completely transform businesses in all types of industries. It’s going to be incredibly fun to watch.