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Boston Society of Architects

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Economy of scale

Can the maker movement revive US manufacturing?

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Vector outlines of AtFAB furniture parts; courtesy AtFAB.

The doorbell is the first clue that you are requesting admission to a makerspace.

Squeezed next to a beaten-up metal door on the backside of an old brick warehouse, the button is housed in a laser-cut acrylic panel that glows amber. Press the button, and the signal routes through a hobbyist microprocessor and rings a 1960s-era telephone inside Cambridge Hackspace.

If it’s a Tuesday night, when this makerspace hosts its regular Open Project Night, someone will let you in.

Inside, on a recent evening, 20 people were scattered about a large loftlike room that smelled of scorched wood. On one side, a few members were working at a laser cutter (which accounted for the burnt-wood smell); against the opposite wall, a woman with a radically asymmetrical hairstyle was patiently coaxing a 3-d printer to create parts that would be assembled into a drone. The rest of the attendees were gathered around a variety of work tables drinking beer, tapping on laptops, and tinkering with electronics projects bristling with wires and blinking lights. A vanquished robot warrior sat forlornly on a shelf by the door.

According to the Brookings Institution, maker enterprises are expanding beyond their artisanal and hobbyist roots to create true business value

The term makerspace (or hackspace—basically the same thing) is barely more than 10 years old, yet already more than a half-dozen such places have sprouted up around the Boston area. Half workshop, half social club, makerspaces have evolved in that short time to include a predictable miscellany of tools: 3-D printers, computer numerical control (CNC) routers, and laser cutters; microprocessor platforms and mini computers such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi; and a culture of tinkering and hacking.

In 2016, the magazine Popular Science reported that there were nearly 1,400 active makerspaces widely distributed around the world. These facilities are not only cropping up in old industrial spaces but also in schools, libraries, and creative offices like architectural and design firms. Another “maker movement” barometer: In 2016, more than 1.4 million people attended 191 carnival-like show-and-tell Maker Faires in 38 countries around the world.

But as all this activity continues to flourish, many observers are asking an obvious, sometimes hopeful, question: Could this “maker movement” evolve into a serious manufacturing renaissance? Will the best projects hatched in makerspaces ultimately find their way to factories and store shelves? Or will the movement stay niche: a boutique phenomenon that thrives mostly in urban and hipster neighborhoods?

Certainly US manufacturing could use a boost, at a time when so many American companies, like Apple, build most of their best-selling products in China. Creative and design professions would also benefit from easier, less expensive ways to turn ideas into real products that are available in brick-and-mortar and online stores.

Earlier this year the Brookings Institution enthusiastically endorsed the potential of the maker movement, “a deeply American source of decentralized creativity,” to rebuild America’s thinning manufacturing ecosystems. According to Brookings, “makers’ locally-grown enterprises are expanding beyond their artisanal and hobbyist roots to create true business value.” To tap that value, US cities and regions just need to cultivate their local maker communities and connect them with local manufacturing resources. The report concluded, “By embracing the do-it-yourself ethos of the maker movement, communities across the country can renew a sense of local community and help rebuild American manufacturing from the ground up.”

This approach also resonates with Boston architect Brad Prestbo, a senior associate and Technical Resource Group chair at Sasaki. Prestbo recently collaborated with the Boston Society of Architects/AIA to cofound a new BSA committee, MakeTANK, to bring maker culture into the design process.

In an interview, Prestbo said he believes the architectural world is in the midst of a very special cultural moment that’s been created by a convergence of several factors. The first is an exponential increase in computer-processing power. The second is immediate access to new and evolving fabrication materials and tools. The third is a general paradigm shift toward dabbling, tinkering, greater risk taking, and “the making half of the profession.”

In 2016, the MakeTANK committee began to actively explore how to bring making into the design process. The group’s custom-cast, node-and-spoke demonstration pavilion, on display at the 2016 ABX convention, was later installed at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum during the summer of 2017, alongside several of the museum’s permanent pieces. MakeTANK is also planning on creating an installation featuring origami felt laminates at ABX this November.

Asked whether he thought makerspace activity could spark a renaissance in US manufacturing, Prestbo mentioned Opendesk, a London-based group (with a few architects on the founding team) building a global platform that uses the Internet to allow designers to publish digital furniture designs that can be fabricated anywhere in the world by small-scale professional fabricators.

Ultimately, Prestbo believes that as maker tools are able to create hybrid materials, combining different filaments and different materials, even construction sites will become more like microfactories: forming up structures on site.

Anne Filson and Gary Rohrbacher, architects who are professors at the University of Kentucky, have also been exploring the makerspace-manufacturing connection. A few years ago, they cofounded AtFAB, which distributes its furniture digitally via Opendesk’s FabHub network and another network of fabricators called 100kGarages. Anyone is welcome to download the files for free; AtFAB designs have been downloaded more than 12,000 times. If the designs are used commercially, AtFAB requests a percentage based on volume and fabrication cost.

“It’s very easy now for a young designer to have a global network,” said Filson. “We think that more and more young designers can have their own websites, host their own designs.”

In the AtFAB vision, makerspaces serve two purposes: Designers and craftspeople can use makerspace facilities to create prototypes; then, once they are happy with a design, they can post the digital file so that interested customers around the world can get it fabricated at the nearest makerspace.

“Right now the biggest role for makerspaces is drawing people into the maker movement,” said Filson. “Yet as more people in society recognize their agency as makers, makerspaces are going to have more functions, more than just an introductory one. They can become manufacturing hubs.”

Adds Rohrbacher, “Today, I think of makerspaces as incubators. But if a makerspace saw their constellation of tools as relating to the underemployed or semiskilled workforce in their area, that would be amazing. They could become distributed manufacturing sites.”

For Prestbo and AtFAB, the manufacturing impact of maker-spaces is real but relatively small: measured in hundreds of units, distributed among small, local fabricators all over the world. But does the creative output of makerspaces scale up to thousands and millions of units in US factories that create jobs and bolster local economies?

Scott N. Miller, cofounder and ceo of Dragon Innovation, a manufacturing solutions company based in Cambridge, is a go-to fixer when hardware start-ups, surprised by super enthusiastic Kickstarter campaigns, find themselves dealing with the mixed blessing of having to deliver millions of units. Miller earned his large-scale manufacturing stripes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he led iRobot’s Roomba technical team that scaled the robotic floor cleaner from a prototype to high-volume production of three million units. Since cofounding Dragon Innovation in 2009, Miller’s team has worked with more than 300 companies, including MakerBot, Pebble, Ring, and Formlabs.

Asked if makerspace products will make an impact on US manufacturing, Miller downshifts the target from millions of manufactured units to thousands.

One reason, according to Miller: the “Start-up Hardware Valley of Death.” If a maker aspires to sell just a hundred units, he or she can assemble them on a dining room table and sell via Etsy. If there’s potential to sell 10 million, a Chinese manufacturer is the clear choice. But if the anticipated run is 1,000 to 10,000, it’s too big for the dining room table and too small for a Chinese manufacturer. The maker is caught in the Hardware Valley of Death.

The obvious solution for a US-based maker, Miller said, is a small, local manufacturer who will work with the maker, designer, or architect and produce runs of 1,000 units.

“The maker movement has democratized the creation of many devices and is driving production volumes that start in the 1,000- to 5,000-unit range,” Miller said. “These volumes are inherently well suited for domestic production and will provide new opportunities for local manufacturers and workers.” Miller said he’s “just starting” to see this small-scale manufacturing movement emerge in the US.

Others have noticed, too. As makerspace tools have continued to evolve, many start-ups have launched into the space between makers and manufacturers. All are familiar with the kinds of tools and files that power makerspaces. In addition to Opendesk, and 100kGarages, entrants include Maker’s Row, 3D Hubs, Sculpteo, Shapeways, Stratasys, i.materialise, Proto Labs, Fictiv, and Voodoo Manufacturing. Even crafty Etsy has launched a beta Etsy Manufacturing center, to match its creators to manufacturing resources.

The US manufacturing scene is also evolving, said Tanya Menendez, cofounder of Brooklyn-based Maker’s Row. New “boutique” factories are cropping up, started by people “who are more like makers.” Some of New York’s venerable family-owned garment manufacturers, now managed by younger generations, are also actively seeking out maker business, she said.

“Many traditional factories that used to only deal with the trade are now reaching out to makers,” said Menendez. “For example, some Garment District factories now have Instagram accounts and Facebook pages to show off their work. That’s new.”

AtFAB’s Filson has also noted this trend coming from both makers and manufacturers, which she finds promising.

Can the creative output of makerspaces scale up to millions of units in busy US factories that create jobs and bolster local economies?

“When we started out, factories and fabricators were almost hidden,” she said. “Now, partly because of the Internet and fabricator networks like Opendesk’s FabHub and 100kGarages, they are more accessible. At the same time, people working in makerspaces—architects, designers, and just plain makers—are getting better at creating designs and prototypes that can be manufactured.”

So makerspaces and factories are moving toward each other?

“Ideally, we’re going to meet somewhere in the middle,” she replied with a laugh. “And that will be an exciting time.”