Shared access to digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers will create a new breed of digital artisan manufacturers, says Sylvia Lowe.
The drive to make things with our own hands runs deep. A common archetype is the lone hobbyist, tinkering in sheds or garages. Indeed DIY & Crafts remains one of the most popular categories on Pinterest. But, as is now so familiar, digital tools and platforms are disrupting the landscape, flipping a solus hobby into something much larger, both economically and socially.
In 2015, we’ll see this movement grow as shared public spaces such as libraries and universities are transformed into design labs and factories for a nation of independent manufacturers.
A couple of underlying forces are fueling this. Firstly, digital tools for design and manufacturing like 3D printers, scanners and laser cutters, previously only accessible for commercial use, are becoming smaller, cheaper and user-friendly for non-professionals.
Secondly, the software and designs used in the manufacturing of items are now stored digitally and can be easily shared, increasingly through open source practices where collaboration on projects can take places across borders.
And as manufacturing is democratised, new markets are springing up for the items people make. Etsy hit a billion dollars in annual revenue in 2013. According to the RSA, through Etsy alone, hundreds of thousands of people supplement their income from the crafts they make. This is reinforced by 2014 data from the Government’s Business Population Estimates which shows that the number of manufacturing firms with zero employees (i.e. just the owners) grew by nearly 40 per cent over the past three years (in contrast to all other manufacturing firm sizes, which have dropped in numbers).
You don't have to look far to see outward signs of the maker movement gathering momentum. In October 2014 the Maker Faire brand hosted its first flagship event outside of the US, setting up camp in Rome. The 2015 event, in London’s Olympic Park, is expected to attract 75,000 people.
In the US, public spaces have been embracing the maker movement for a few years. Universities, and some schools, have developed student-centred maker spaces (such as Invention Studio at Georgia Tech) where students can access tools like laser cutters and 3D printers, and create their own products.
We’re catching up fast though. FabLab opened its first venue in the City of London in 2014 and expects to have 30 facilities across the UK by 2020, playing host to 30,000 users. In May 2014, the first UK FabLab based in a public library opened its doors in Exeter, proudly supported by Nesta and Devon County Council, and we expect to see more libraries following suit in 2015, as a potential solution to their long-suffering crises of identity, purpose and funding.
Dundee Central Library was the first library to house a 3D printer, and the Carnegie Trust has sponsored the development of a library-hack-maker space in St Botolph’s Waiting Room, Colchester where the old bus station waiting room has been reimagined as a testbed for library service transformation. Even Moretonhampstead, a rural library in Dartmoor, is piloting a maker space project.
It makes sense as a proposition: libraries leveling access to technology in the same way they did for information, providing community resources and learning relevant to the 21st century, and redefining their view of literacy to encompass digital literacy. Perhaps the time has never been better for a make-over.