Building A Maker Society

Why is manufacturing important?  I wish that I didn’t have to point this out, but apparently many people don’t really understand the difference between service work and work that actually adds real value in goods. The problem is that services just push money around without actually producing any real assets.

Here’s a success story. I’ve followed the NYCCNC YouTube channel for a few years now and the success story is truly inspiring.

I have have had a similar feeling in recent years as I’ve seen outposts of the “Maker Movement” across the United States: This matters! People should pay attention! In this and the next few dispatches I’ll explain why I think so, and give illustrations from Kentucky, Oregon, South Carolina, California, and elsewhere.

I imagine that many readers might have heard of this movement or seen one of its Maker Faires. But my guess is that most people who aren’t directly involved think of it as fringe and hobby-minded, artsy-and-craftsy and hip rather than a serious economic, technological, and city-development force. I’ve come to disagree, and let me lay out some of the reasons why.

The Background

First, the lay of the landscape: You can see information about the national Maker Faire cycle here, for information about shows and displays. The next big event on the calendar is the National Maker Faire, in DC two weeks from now. You can read here about MakerCon, which I’ve been to and enjoyed, and go here for Make: magazine, to which I subscribe. In two weeks the White House will have events for the National Week of Making, with more information here. Make: had a story on the Maker City Initiative here; Peter Hirschberg has a speech explaining the concept here; and the Institute for the Future had an early report here.

Now, what this movement is and why it matters. Everyone who has heard a recent political speech, listened to a talk show, or looked at the “Made in China” labels in retail stores is familiar with the idea that “America doesn’t make things any more.” There are obvious reasons, and some less obvious ones, why people feel this way. A certain kind of high-volume production certainly has shifted from the rest of the world to China (and elsewhere) in the past generation. As economies get richer, the relative share of manufacturing in their output and their workforce inevitably goes down (as it does for farming—even as absolute output in both categories keeps going up), because service sectors are growing faster. This is true even of economies which much more aggressive pro-manufacturing industrial government policies and corporate practices, like Germany and Japan:

Via U.S. Chamber of Commerce

And as manufacturing efficiency grows up, the share of manufacturing jobs goes down even faster than the output share. Everyone’s grandfather worked in a factory; each generation, fewer do.

So there is a real change—fewer Americans have jobs in manufacturing—that seems even larger than it is, because of the kinds of things America still makes. Consumers naturally mainly see consumer goods: TVs, electronics, gadgets, clothes. Those are the fields in which production has disproportionately shifted overseas. Walk into a WalMart or Costco, and just about everything seems to come from China. The higher-end capital goods or scientific equipment from U.S. manufacturers rarely comes before our eyes. (The main exception is Boeing airplanes, with GE or Pratt & Whitney engines.) We see the “assembled in China” labels on Apple computers and phones and over-interpret what that means. The labels conceal the reality that the most valuable parts of a Mac or iPhone come not from China but from richer countries like Japan, Germany, South Korea, and very significantly from the United States.To wrap this up for now: yes, manufacturing is in relative decline across the developed world, although most Americans think the situation is worse than it really is. And yes, the decline of high-wage, mass-employment manufacturing is part of the worsening pressure on median-income earners, also around the world. So anything that can spur new manufacturing is a plus—with an emphasis on the new, given the repeated findings by the Kauffman Foundation that essentially all net job creation in the United States is from companies in their first few years of existence. (Explanation here. Short version: Older companies, in aggregate, gradually reduce their total workforce over time, as some go out of business and some get streamlined. Thus, the net job growth is from newly-formed companies.)
What might the maker movement have to do with that? It has made it surprisingly easier for new companies, in manufacturing, to start. Why? It has to do with tools.

New Tools, New Firms

Here’s how I finally understood the difference that a new generation of production tools has made: by comparing it to my own business, writing and publishing.

Everyone in journalism knows the line attributed to A.J. Liebling, in The New Yorker: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Liebling wrote that in 1960. As more-or-less recently as that in historical terms, if you wanted to disseminate your thoughts to people outside your household, you simply could not do it yourself. You had no option but to work through a limited number of powerful, capital-intensive enterprises. You had to convince a newspaper or magazine to publish your writings—because only they controlled the printing presses, delivery networks, and newsstands. (I remember the olden days of wanting to react to something in the news, and then making phone calls or sending letters—!!!, yes, real letters in the mail on paper !!!—to the handful of gatekeepers who ran op-ed pages, hoping you could get their interest.) You had to attract the attention of TV or radio reporters, since only they could get you on the air. If you had a longer story to tell, you had to convince a publishing house to put out your book. Short of going door-to-door with flyers, there was no way to avoid the middleman in this industry. And the people who served as middlemen—the publishers, the broadcasters—were buttressed by the very expensive printing and transmitting equipment they controlled….

There’s a similar tools-driven change whose effects are so profound that we never even think about them any more. In the early days of computer use and word-processing, if you wanted to write something electronically, you had to wrestle with a lot of the details of electronic life. The first computer I ever used, in the late 1970s, was one I bought from a peanut-processing warehouse in Ohio; I had to reprogram it to be able to use a writing program called The Electric Pencil. Now people may grumble about Word, Pages, and other programs, but using them requires about as much forethought as picking up a real pencil. In the early days of web design, to put anything online you had to know a lot about layout code. Including pictures, charts, videos, or sounds was so hard you generally didn’t bother. Now you copy an embed code, you click Share or Send or Upload, and the job is done. Tools that were unknown a generation ago are now ubiquitous and have changed everything about communication and expression.

Tools for Making

Something similar is fostering the maker movement. Since the dawn of the capitalist heavy-industrial era, to succeed in manufacturing you needed capital. You needed money for giant production equipment. Blast furnaces if you were making steel, assembly lines if you were making cars, machine tools if you were making engines, coordinated supply chains if you were assembling complex devices. Then you needed distribution arrangements with stores, and lots of inventory for them to keep in the warehouse, and other impediments that collectively made it hard, expensive, high-stakes, and high-risk for newcomers to enter a business.

This is the equation that the tools revolution of the past few years is also changing for manufacturing. A combination of 3D printing (which allows people to make and revise prototypes onsite, and produce certain high-value, low-volume items themselves, rather than going to a factory); much less expensive laser cutters, milling machines, and other sophisticated machine tools; the evolution of Arduino controls, which allow designers to add sophisticated electronic functions without doing all the coding themselves. You could think of this last function as being similar to simple Embed functions for images or videos online.

In parallel with these technological advances have been organizational changes. For instance, the rise of maker-spaces and shared-work site where people can use advanced machinery for free or at very low cost; and the rise of collaborations among universities, community colleges, established companies, and local financiers in fostering hardware entrepreneurs. One of the most ambitions of those collaborative spaces is “Highway 1” in San Francisco. I wrote about its origins in the magazine back in 2012; you can read a report about its latest “Demo Day,” at which maker groups show off their products, in a TechCrunch story here and see a video here. This video from Highway 1 is obviously promotional, but it demonstrates the changes I am talking about and rings true to what I have seen and heard from entrepreneurs there (I have met and interviewed some of the people you see here)…

What It Means in Practice

“This would not have been possible ten years ago,” Venkat Venkatakrishnan, the CEO of a unique and famous maker space called FirstBuild, told me in Louisville earlier this year. FirstBuild is unique because it was created by GE, as a subsidiary of its appliance division and as a deliberate effort to bring the nimble maker spirit to its design process.

“What has changed is that the maker movement has figured out a group of technologies and tools which enable us to manufacture in low volume,” Venkat (as he is known) said. Big manufacturers like GE built their business on high-volume, factory-scale, very high-stakes production, where each new product means a bet of tens of millions of dollars. FirstBuild is mean to explore smaller, faster, more customizable options.


“Now you can get a circuit board mill for $8,000. If you are looking for a circuit board for an appliance, earlier the only chance of getting it was from China. Today I can make boards here and ship them out quickly. Similarly with laser cutters—not big ones but small ones, where I can cut metal right here. It’s a huge advantage, and these things did not exist ten years ago. In those days you couldn’t hack the kind of creative solutions we are seeing now.”Tomorrow FirstBuild and its parent GE Appliances division are expected to complete a long-announced deal that will transfer ownership to the giant Chinese appliance maker Haier. (GE had previously planned to sell to the Swedish firm Electrolux, which has a much bigger presence in the U.S. market than Haier does, but it called off the deal last year after resistance from U.S. anti-trust regulators.) Both GE and Haier have said that that all factories and facilities will stay where they are (Electrolux had planned a move to its existing sites in North Carolina); that the GE Appliance and FirstBuild management will be unchanged; and that the FirstBuild start-up mission will continue too.That’s the high-level corporate news. In the next installment, more details on exactly what FirstBuild has underway, how that parallels efforts in other parts of the country, and what this Maker energy might mean for the country’s ability to foster new companies and create better jobs.

Following this earlier post about the significance of the Maker Movement, and before an upcoming report on an unusual and significant maker/startup space in Louisville, I want to mention a very interesting WSJ interview by Matthew Kassel with my friend Liam Casey. It was Liam whom I presented, only half jokingly, as “Mr. China” when describing his role as connector of world commerce to Chinese manufacturing, back in 2007. More recently, I mentioned his shift of some manufacturing activity back from China to the San Francisco area, here.

Some samples of Liam’s comments now, which bear on the U.S. manufacturing revival (and challenges thereto):

WSJ: If “geography is history,” do you think it’s possible—or even desirable—to reproduce these international supply chains in, say, the U.S.?

MR. CASEY: … I don’t care if I’m producing a product in California, Texas, North Carolina, Shenzhen or somewhere in Europe, once I’ve got access to raw materials for producing the product, a skilled workforce to make the product, and a global logistics platform to be able to move the product from the source directly to a consumer anywhere in the world.

Where it’s made doesn’t really matter, when you look at the margin breakdown—you mostly win and lose in the selling, not in the making.


MR. CASEY: We’re working on a very high-profile product in San Francisco. We’re doing all the engineering and development, and we are trying very hard to assemble it in North America.

Because of the crowdfunding campaign, we have the data—we know that there’s an appetite for the product—and the raw material is coming from the region, so we can actually build the product there.

Two years ago, we wouldn’t have considered making it in the U.S. But because we have all the data from the crowdfunding—we have good information that can help the factory plan and schedule the orders over a period of time—we’re actually excited about this project. We think we can build it in the U.S.

I always found Liam to be a few months ahead of what “everyone knows” about global business. Think of what he’s saying when you hear the next speech about “we don’t / can’t build things” in the U.S. anymore.

1. Give students permission to play

In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Grey argues that “free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient.“ Too often our education system disregards the power of play in fostering the creativity and passion that naturally exists within students. As a result, students are schooled to abandon their innate sense of curiosity and expression and trained to see the teacher as the be-all, end-all authority. Similarly, teachers will look to the administration for examples of acceptable use of class time. As educators, we often create additional pressure to “stay the course” and stick to pacing guides at the risk of being responsive to our students needs and passions; instead let’s all agree to offer up permission to engage in intellectual play. To bring this theory into practice, consider the following:

  • Create more opportunities for collaborative brainstorming to solve problems with new ideas. Consider using a protocol such as NSRF’s Wagon Wheel for collaborative brainstorming.
  • Provide materials and tasks such as an inventor’s box to elicit outside-the-box (pun intended) thinking for the design of a new product or creation.
  • Allow more free-time for self exploration through mechanisms such as Genius Hour, and educators are always devising more and sharing them with #geniushour.

2. Build those Maker muscles

If you want to get better at a specific sport, you must go to practice. It’s an obvious point, but it’s easier to be disciplined about practicing if there are built-in structures to support such efforts. What does this look like for Making? Schools can build in structured time throughout the day for students to engage in learning activities related to their personal interests and passions. Examples of such structures include a Tinker Time or Genius Hour once a day or week for students to pursue a project of their choice. Likewise, “Choice time” or “download time” can offer students 20 minutes after lunch to explore a topic, material or activity outside the realm of classroom learning through centers and stations. Finally, Student Interest Groups are elective style classes led by school teachers based on student interest/request. Students will need frequent opportunities to try on their role of a Maker. Let’s give them those chances.

3. Reflect often

To ensure that students are intellectually and emotionally engaged, it is critical to reflect on their learning while Making. Reflection is a built in “pause point,” where the teacher asks students to mentally step outside the task in front of them and think about themselves as learners. Examples of reflection could include journal entries, think/pair/share discussions with a partner, listening dyads or even video blogging. By doing this students, take the time to consider the consequences of their actions, and rethink how they may approach a future challenge. “Going meta” daily will ensure that students are constantly reflecting about themselves, their behavior, their failures and celebrations. Reflection asks your students to see themselves and where they need to go.

4. Have some accountability

Yeah, I said the dirty word. To uphold the rigor of Making, there should be a purpose and final outcome for students. Schools and communities may decide to host a Maker Faire as an exhibition of student efforts, or individual teachers may decide to have some form of a gallery walk or presentation. Teachers may even chose to use a rubric such as the one developed by new Tech Network. Building in a mechanism that holds students accountable for staying on task and creating high quality work is critical to ensuring that learning—content mastery as well as intra and interpersonal learning—is happening.

5. Cultivate an appreciation for failure

It’s important to not only reward creative thinking, but also to highlight and celebrate failure. Too often students view failure as something unacceptable and derogatory, and will go to great efforts to avoid it; in fact some of the greatest inventions and ideas were born out of struggle and failure. Frameworks such as Design Thinking make this acknowledgment feel natural through the initial stages of a project. Trying as many things as possible is essential to beginning any Making. It’s why it has it’s own name: prototyping. Celebrating failure can also happen simply through quick reflections put up on an “our favorite fail wall” or through verbal share-outs.

6. Use role models to inspire students to become Makers

Offering voice and choice in what and how students Make is critical to engagement, but so is inspiration. Students look not just to their peers but to adults for inspiration. As often as possible, students should have the chance to interact with expert Makers and see the cool stuff they are creating. Teachers, you can be these expert makers. Dive in next to your students to model what it means to become a Maker

I think that the one size fits all go to college approach to education has failed the US badly.  It’s failed both the kids and the country at large by not providing the alternatives to meaningful work that could create prosperous lives for so many that right now, are left out of the system for one reason or another.  In the 19th Century, frequently young men were setting out and looking for careers at age fifteen or younger.  Going to university was an option, but it was only considered necessary for a career in law, religion or government.  For things like engineering you found a mentor and self studied.  It wasn’t until Dewey theories were brought into practice that that changed.

The trajectory of American education in the 20th and now the 21st Century has been an ever more cookie cutter approach guided by theories from education professionals.  The problem is that somewhere in the push toward better outcomes, the kids got lost.  The individual got lost in the statistics.  As did creativity, because creativity doesn’t lend itself to the cookie cutter approach.  I would like to believe that liability was the reason that shop classes were shut down, but I think that they were inspiring disruption might have had more to do with it.

The problem is that with the withdrawal of shop classes the country lost it’s contact with learning the skills to use tools and invent, but we didn’t lose the drive to do those things.  We are starting to rethink and perhaps relearn what we have lost.  Programs like this are a start.

As well as Mike Rowe’s scholarships.

Education is only part of the picture.  Even more important is that we have to reestablish confidence in ourselves and the competence in ourselves to get the big jobs done.  We are no less a people than our great grandparents, grandparents or parents, yet somehow we have lost our ability to think of ourselves as the people who “built that.”  It’s time to ask ourselves why we can’t “build that” anymore and fix the problems.  It’s time we reestablished our competence rather than waiting for “experts” to make the wrong decisions and create even bigger problems. We can have a competent society again if we want it.

How can the typical American institution, public or private get it’s groove back?  Here’s some suggestions.


1 | Get exposure to maker culture: Start small, but start somewhere. Take a field trip to a local makerspace. Invite your employees to annual events likeMaker Faire (where we spent this past weekend), or a future MakerCon. Last year our entire team embarked on a half-day offsite to learn principles of making with a low-cost, electronic prototyping platform called Arduino to turn stuffed animals into animated, robotic ones. Cutting, sewing, wiring, and programming was not only fun, but also gave us a chance to showcase skills not normally celebrated in the workplace.*%25206%2520likes%2522%257D%25

2 | Bring making inside: Dedicated makerspaces in your offices allow workers to easily experiment and build tangible business solutions. For instance, in healthcare, nurses have long been under-the-radar innovators, regularly customizing devices for patients. But their creative ideas rarely left the walls of their hospital rooms. Seeing this gap, MakerNurse develops makerspaces inside hospitals, encouraging nurses to take advantage of 3D printers, laser cutters, and other tools to turn their hacks into real products. But you don’t need a 3D printer to emulate this. Offering a room full of sketchpads, whiteboards, and low-cost prototyping technology provides space for people to share and operationalize ideas. Consider a competition that invites employees — or people outside your organization — to build creative solutions to real problems, like InfoSys’ InfyMakers contest, whose contestants created a device that allows the blind to draw with their eyes.*%25208%2520likes%2522%257D%

3 | Invest in a future of makers. Alleviating the skill gap among the next generation of workers means investing in making for both workers and students. For instance, Cisco has its Networking Academy, an IT skills and career building program that’s worked with more than 5.5 million learners to date. And companies including Etsy, Dremel, and Microsoft served as sponsors of the Luminary Labs-powered CTE Makeover Challenge for the U.S. Department of Education, where high schools were invited to design and build makerspaces for students.

From what I’ve seen, people want to make things.  I think that there has been a shift in the attitude in this country that making should be left to professionals in factories.  Which is a good thing, because all those factories were garages  at some point. Even the huge steel plants and Aluminum foundries started as experiments in small spaces someplace and grew up.  Ever seen Ford’s first factory.  It was a small wood framed building.  It’s places like that where the bit ideas come from and the people willing to take the risk and go forward.

It doesn’t take as much as it used to when you want  to turn an idea into a product.  Where not too long ago, access to the tools and vendors needed to get the process done was hard to find that’s changing.  Now it’s much easier for people to find other people with the skills and equipment that they need.

None of that matters if we do not remember who we are.  It’s time to stop the whining about who is in office at any given time and only ask for the freedom to pursue our own happiness without forcing it on others.

The best way for government at all levels to ensure the future right now is to make sure that the ground for innovation is fertile. That means low taxes and few regulations of the kind that bind innovation in red tapeworms.  Given that fertile ground and Americans can achieve almost anything.

Continue to salt the earth as we have been doing and the only thing that will be left is dead bare ground and empty cities filled with trash and dead monument to what once was.  It’s either make or drift away.

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