The Maker Movement Is About the Economy, Stupid

By:  Rep. Mark Takano

A movement made up of hobbyists, tinkerers, crafters and innovators is getting ready to change what you thought you knew about the American economy. They’re teaching a new generation how to repair rather than replace, and if what they’re looking for is not available, to invent it. They call themselves “makers,” and they will figure out how to build whatever you can imagine.

The last few decades have seen a steep decrease in domestic manufacturing, and many people seemed to buy in to the proposition that our manufacturing sector had forever fallen behind. Analysts became resigned to the idea that labor costs in Asia and Mexico would never allow us to be competitive, and that we needed to shift the fundamentals of our economy to reflect this. We shut down factories, focused on the creation of vast supply networks, and began retraining our students to look for jobs outside of factories.

As consumers, many Americans initially seemed complacent with the situation. Outsourcing brought down the price of consumer goods. In turn, increased purchasing power made more people feel as though they were firmly part of the middle class. However, that initial increase in purchasing power was undercut by the decrease in both domestic manufacturing and the overall quality of goods. The result was a sharp decline in manufacturing jobs and a generation of Americans that weren’t exposed to making things. At the start of the 21st century, 17.1 million Americans worked in the manufacturing sector. Currently, 12.1 million workers hold manufacturing jobs.

My good friend Gene Sherman, founder of Vocademy, a community workshop in my district known as a Makerspace, told me, “As a nation, we decided that making just wasn’t that important anymore.” However, he also noted, “We’ve since realized that was wrong. We are all makers. It’s in our genetic code.”

It was a visit to Vocademy that first sparked my interest in the Maker Movement, a tech-focused social initiative built around trying, failing, tinkering, innovating, and then sharing lessons learned along the way. Participants come from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds and experiences, including artisans and engineers, students and chefs, software developers and musicians. What they all have in common is a driving interest to innovate. And in recent years, they’ve been empowered by the democratization of advanced manufacturing tools like 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC (computer numerical control) machines, among others. Both the prices of, and the baseline technical knowledge needed to operate, such machines, have recently dropped.

While we associate garage workshops with early makers — like the home computing clubs that led to the PC revolution — this new generation of innovators have set up shops in large warehouses, or “Makerspaces,” that operate on a gym membership type business model. For an average of $100 a month, members receive access to millions of dollars’ worth of advanced manufacturing equipment. Once members are trained, they can use that equipment for any type of project they want to pursue.

While many of the projects are undertaken for purely personal enjoyment, it’s the fun and creativity of these projects that feeds innovation.

Some projects, like the Square credit card reader, which was first prototyped in a Makerspace, turn in to commercially viable products. The Internet has created a platform for these inventors to receive funding for their business ideas and take them straight to market. According to the e-commerce website Etsy, which acts as online storefront for crafters and the Maker community, “the Maker economy is on the rise… Already, there are over one million Etsy sellers worldwide, who together sold more than $1.35 billion in goods in 2013.”

Combine this change in purchasing patterns with declining domestic energy costs in the U.S., higher labor costs in Asia, higher international shipping costs, and supply chains that are becoming too complex to manage, and America is becoming a competitive location for companies to open factories in and begin manufacturing.

Corporate America, academia, and the federal government are taking note. Intel is creating and marketing products like a customizable controller board aimed at the Maker. Toyota worked with makers to develop an Urban Utility Concept Car. MIT is accepting maker portfolios in their application process. DARPA is funding a Makerspace that their employees can use, and back in June, the White House hosted their first Maker Faire.

In February, I joined with Congressmen Steve StiversMick Mulvaney, and Tim Ryan to launch the Congressional Maker Caucus. We are a bi-partisan group of lawmakers working to support and advocate for the community of makers in the halls of the United States Congress.

As the Maker Movement continues to spread, becoming an important part of American business and academia, it is drafting a blue print for rebuilding our manufacturing base and creating a sustainable new sector in our economy. That sector won’t be as susceptible to being copied and undercut on price, because it will foster constant innovation, something that Americans have always and will always be leaders in.