Born to Make

The Maker Movement is often described in vaunted terms as a revolutionary force. But for Mendoza’s Jim Spencer, being a maker is simply being human.

Jim Spencer didn’t blink.

His quadcopter drone just took a hard bounce on landing, sending plastic parts scattering across the floor of the Jordan Auditorium.

The pilot, aka Notre Dame photographer Matt Cashore, began to apologize.

“No problem,” said Spencer, calmly picking up the pieces and reassembling the drone. “I made it to do this.”

The operative word in Spencer’s comment is “made.” His quadcopter drone is not a fancy toy bought ready-made. It wasn’t assembled from a kit. Spencer made the drone himself by printing most of it with a 3-D printer based on his own designs. He not only made it to be breakable (good thing — Cashore’s second landing attempt had the same ending), but to be remade by anyone wishing to copy his design, with his good wishes.

Spencer, an education support technician at Mendoza, is what is known as a “maker.”

In another age, “maker” would translate into “tinkerer” — that individual who was always dismantling and reassembling a car, or gear, or any number of objects, or even inventing an entirely new product. A maker is that individual who is moved by a creative spirit and the glimmer of an idea for how to make life better through sometimes tiny adjustments.

Or simply, put into the broadest but most accurate terms, a maker is “someone who makes something,” whether the “something” involves building a robot, coding an app, knitting a sweater or perfecting a microbrew.

In the last few years, the Maker Movement has gained momentum to the point that as many as 135 million adults in the U.S. consider themselves makers, according to some estimates. You could call Steve Jobs a maker, and Martha Stewart, and the 1.6 million people on Etsy selling homemade creations from fine jewelry to original paintings to pet portraits.

As encompassing as the definition is, it would be a mistake to characterize makers as merely hobbyists writ large. The movement has a lot of layers, and a lot of implications for some of the fundamental concepts underlying capitalism, such as consumerism and intellectual property rights. (Read James Fallows’ excellent series on the Maker Movement published in The Atlantic in June 2016.)

At its perhaps most ambitious level, the Maker Movement is a harbinger of America’s third industrial revolution, following the first which began in England in the late 18th century with the automation of the textile industry, and the second in the early 20th century when Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line and mass production.

But perhaps the easiest way to understand makers is through Spencer’s own story. To him, the significance of the movement is at its most essential, holistic level: It’s good for people to make things with their hands.

Einstein’s Desk and ‘Hoarders’

Spencer comes off as an intensely curious and positive individual. Passing him in the College atrium recently, he called out, “Keep having a nice day!” with all sincerity. He was the kind of kid who took apart his toys to see how they worked and asked a million questions — which, he says, his parents took great pains to patiently answer.

Being a maker, he said, is basic human nature.

“I think there’s some kind of wiring where we’re meant to do things with our hands — building, making, working manually. And I think people subconsciously crave that when they don’t get it.”

Doing things with our hands hasn’t always been a foreign concept. We had home economics and shop class in school, and often 4-H, Scouts or other hobby clubs in our off hours. We had wood-burning kits and chemistry sets, and all kinds of hands-on craft kits. And while these things still exist, they’ve slowly phased out of the lives of younger generations, as TV, video games and other types of entertainment have proliferated.

Our jobs, too, are often service related, which means the great preponderance of our time is spent in front of a computer. We don’t “make” anything.

Spencer grew up in Osceola, Indiana, a tiny town with a population of about 2,500 just to the east of South Bend. At Mendoza, his duties include managing the classroom audio/visual equipment. But he’s become a recognized expert in the maker community. He’s given talks to interested groups and helped set up maker-themed events, which are like artisan fairs where makers show off their wares. He’s a member of The MakerHive in Elkhart, Indiana, which is a “maker space” where people can go to tinker on their personal projects.

Maker spaces are sprouting up across the country. Like The MakerHive, they typically have some equipment on hand for use by members, such as 3-D printers and laser cutters. But Spencer emphasizes that it’s not so much about the space as it is about the community of creative minds. The “brain trust,” he calls it, which provides an enormous resource to all members of the group and to the broader community.  

Spencer’s personal maker space is his garage and an extra bedroom, which he describes as somewhere between Einstein’s desk — which was notoriously messy — and an episode of “Hoarders.” He owns five 3-D printers; three he built himself — one from a kit and two from parts. One, he designed himself from scratch. He’s also working on building a 100-watt carbon dioxide laser cutting table, a smaller racing quadcopter, an industrial style ultrasonic cleaner, miscellaneous speaker and audio projects, and learning how to make mead (or honey wine).

He owns eight or nine guitars, which hang on the wall of the bedroom, and curiously, a lot of beauty products. “I’ll use a hair dryer to melt things sometimes,” he said. “With my UV curing 3-D printing process, I actually have one of those light boxes that they use to cure nail polish. And I use nail polish remover for softening prints.”

He’s also melded his maker interests with his job at Notre Dame. On his desk are about half a dozen frankly unremarkable plastic pieces of various shapes. What they represent, however, are custom solutions printed with one of his 3-D printers for a variety of problems that arise every day with the classroom AV equipment.

His first project involved fixing an issue with the push-to-talk microphones installed on the tables in the Stayer Center for Executive Education. Students inadvertently would slide their laptops into the microphones and activate them, treating the rest of the class to the sound of typing while the professor was trying to teach.

Spencer designed a daisy-shaped protector ring, borrowed a 3-D printer from a friend at the Law School, and manufactured about one hundred of them to install in all the Stayer classrooms. The alternative would be to try working with the manufacturer to adjust the equipment, or try to get students not to shove their laptops forward. But for a maker like Spencer, the problem was simply an opportunity to put imagination and technology to work on a custom solution.

DIY Nation

Spencer points to the burgeoning DIY trend of fixing up homes and cars as proof that the more modern life shifts us from physical and manual work, the more we seek hands-on creative activity as an outlet. There’s a philosophical shift that happens too, when we view ourselves as creators rather than consumers.

Here is where the Maker Movement starts to scale up to something more than individual hobbies. The larger vision is for an economy where the means of production are put in the hands of individuals, with a focus on custom rather than mass-produced outputs. The “democratization of invention,” as some describe the movement.

Spencer, for example, could have bought a quadcopter, but he couldn’t find one that was exactly what he had in mind. So he put his design skills to work, first drawing up the plan using a CAD system, then printing components with his 3-D printer. He also used some off-the-shelf parts, such as carbon fiber arrows from a sporting goods store that make up the landing struts.

The result was a customized product made on a small scale — in this case, a very small scale of one item. But there are a number of important developments underlying this singular act of manufacturing.

One, evolving technologies have put tools into the hands of makers that formerly were available only to highly capitalized, mass-production companies. Chief among these are the 3-D printer, the personal computer and the internet.

“3-D printing is actually 30 years old,” said Spencer. “It was patented for the first time in 1984, the same year I was patented. It was proprietary technology, and prohibitively expensive. So unless you were a large design firm or an aerospace manufacturer, you weren’t going to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a machine.”

After the patent expired in the mid-2000s, a professor in England, Adrian Bowyer, recognized that the printers could enable people to manufacture items of their own designs. He started the RepRap (Self Replicating Rapid prototyping machine) Project in 2005 that not only came up with a model for a 3-D printer that was relatively cheap, but was offered under an open-source agreement, which means it could be reproduced freely. In fact, the printer could print parts to assemble another 3-D printer, “so you can use it to make another and give that one to a friend,” according to the project website.

The reference to “open source” brings up a second development underpinning the Maker Movement. The generic definition of open source refers to a program where the source code is made available to anyone free of charge to use or modify as desired. It carries the implication of collaboration — programmers and others improving the code or design and sharing it with others.

Obviously, open source flies in the face of the traditional legal protections guarding intellectual property, where whoever owns a patent or copyright retains the right to be the sole user. Not so in the maker community. The free sharing of ideas, tweaking previous designs to customize a product and learning from other makers is the lifeblood of the movement.

“It’s that good human nature part of engineering and product ownership,” said Spencer. “So if I spend hundreds of hours designing a quadcopter, I don’t think twice about uploading the plan so everybody else can download it for free. I created a cool thing, and it’s gratifying to share that.”

So how does a manufacturer make money?

That’s where the discussion of the Maker Movement in the current context of capitalism could be described as evolving, especially around the idea of proprietary designs and products.

It’s worth noting that even some of the most traditional manufacturers are incorporating maker models into their operations. GE Appliances, for example — the quintessential example of the high-volume, factory-scale manufacturer — recently launched a subsidiary maker space called FirstBuild, a Louisville, Kentucky-based “microfactory” that’s dedicated to building custom appliances on a small scale.

“There are a lot of opportunities to make money,” said Spencer. “Not everybody has the ability or the desire to create things, so there are still consumers.”

And most makers don’t want to make everything they use; they want to make this one thing. Makers also need to buy supplies. In fact, it’s estimated that the 3-D printing market alone will quadruple to $12 billion by 2025.

Although maker communities are entrepreneurial at their heart, Spencer pointed out an important distinction between maker spaces and technology parks devoted to providing facilities for early stage startups, such as Innovation Park, especially at a local community level.

“Innovation Park is a very productive place, but it’s a very closed place,” said Spencer. “You don’t always know what’s happening because so much of the activities involve intellectual property that’s been protected or it’s proprietary. Plus, you have to rent space and you’ve got to be an established company.

“Maker spaces like The MakerHive are for weekend warriors and private individuals. So, yeah, a bunch of folks will get together in essentially a garage and bring whatever they want to work on, and the brain trust they create together augments what each of us are able to do and that benefits all of us,” he said.

“As they say, ‘We is smarter than me.’”