How the ‘Maker’ Movement Plans to Transform the U.S. Economy

In his new book, WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson writes that technology has "democratized the means of production."

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WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson.

Chris Anderson was trying to fire up his kids about science and technology when he flew the family’s radio-controlled airplane into a tree on Hopkins St. near their Berkeley, Calif. home. After a lot of rock-throwing and branch-flinging, Anderson finally retrieved the wreckage. “My kids were mortified,” Anderson told me last week. “I had to bribe them with ice-cream.”

It was Anderson’s second attempt in as many days to do a science project with his children, and the experiments weren’t going well. The previous day, he had brought home a Lego robot review-model from the office. Anderson and his family spent all morning assembling the device, only to finish with a “three-wheeled rover that bounced off the walls.” His kids were unimpressed. They’d seen Transformers. “No lasers? No rockets? It doesn’t turn into a truck?” No, Anderson replied, robots are harder-to-make in real life than in the movies.

After the tree mishap, Anderson realized that he could combine features from robotics and aeronautics in order to engage his kids in technology more effectively. “I thought, you know, that Lego robot could have flown the plane better than me.” And that’s how the Anderson family got involved with do-it-yourself drones, which they now build on weekends at home.

Anderson started writing online blog posts about his quest to build a “bottom-up amateur version of what is currently military-industrial high-technology,” in the hopes that “if I share my ignorance, other people will teach me.” The result is a flourishing non-profit community called DIY Drones, which is a forum for the fast-growing sub-culture of people building drones at home.

“It was basically just me being stupid in public, and then everyone started teaching me, and then they started teaching each other,” Anderson told me.

Five years later, Anderson estimates that the DIY Drone community has more than 15,000 drones flying, compared to some 7,000 drones in use worldwide by military forces. U.S. regulators aim to codify rules governing civilian drone use by 2015. (Civilian drones are much smaller than most military drones, and typically aren’t armed with Hellfire missiles.)

Eventually, people started asking Anderson where they could buy small drones, so he set up a home workshop and began hand-making drone models on weekends, even enlisting his children to help build the kits on the dining room table. Then through DIY Drones, Anderson met a 19-year-old from Tijuana, Mexico named Jordi Munoz, and despite never having met Munoz in person, Anderson tapped him to help lead his commercial DIY Drones spin-off, a company called 3D Robotics, which now has two factories with more than 30 workers producing consumer drones, one in San Diego, the other in Tijuana.

Anderson predicts that over the next few years, numerous commercial applications for civilian drones will emerge including film-making, journalism, private security, sports and agriculture. “There will come a day when you will drive by a farm and see a robot crop-duster and a robot tractor,” he says. “People want great video of whatever cool thing they’re doing. Our drones will do that. You can tell it to follow you and you’ve got a robo-camera, a personal Droid that keeps the camera focused on you while you go windsurfing.”

Chris Anderson is the editor-in-chief of WIRED, the 20-year-old monthly magazine that has become the lodestar for technology journalism as the Internet revolution has transformed American business and society. Over the last decade, Anderson has steadily built WIRED’s franchise beyond print by expanding the publication’s online presence and moving the magazine into physical conferences. (I worked for Wired.com before I joined TIME.) During his tenure at WIRED, Anderson has earned several of the highest journalism awards in the business. He’s also written popular books including the best-seller “The Long Tail.” All this while raising five children.

I met Chris for an interview at a midtown New York City hotel last week, and the biggest impression I got was of a man with his priorities in order: He’s trying to be a better father. Anderson’s new book, “Makers,” begins with a poignant reminiscence of how he built engines with his grandfather, and it’s clear that Anderson will stop at almost nothing to get his kids motivated in science and math. In this respect he is a role-model for other American parents who are desperate to see their children engage with math, science and technology. Anderson, who spent nearly a decade covering technology at the The Economist before being tapped to lead WIRED a decade ago, launched the popular GeekDad blog on Wired.com, in part to chronicle his own family’s process.

Collaboration and transparency are at the heart of Anderson’s new book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Here’s its argument: After the personal computer revolution and the Internet revolution, the latest tech upheaval is the “Maker” movement. In a nutshell, the term “Maker” refers to a new category of builders who are using open-source methods and the latest technology to bring manufacturing out of its traditional factory context, and into the realm of the personal desktop computer. “Until recently, the ability to manufacture was reserved for those who owned factories,” Anderson says. “What’s happened over the last five years is that we’ve brought the Web’s democratizing power to manufacturing. Today, you can manufacture with the push of a button.”

According to Anderson, who consciously invokes Karl Marx in his book, new technology has “democratized the means of production,” making it possible for anyone to be a builder or “maker.” Anderson compares the current moment to the early 1980s, just before Apple released the Macintosh, thus making desktop computing available beyond the early-adopter tech-geek community, to the regular consumer.

Today, consumer 3-D printers build models using plastics and other starch-based materials, but Anderson says that by uploading designs to services like Shapeways, one can print in glass, ceramics, and stainless-steel. “It’s not even that expensive,” Anderson says. “It’s, like, $20 to print a metal object that’s beautifully done and you can’t tell that it’s not professionally manufactured.” Other metallic substances like titanium, brass and even gold-plating are possible. “You can do food, cupcake-icing and cakes,” Anderson adds. “How long until you’re printing biology, printing cells?”

The most high-profile “Maker” tool to emerge so far is the 3-D printer, as exemplified by the Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer, built by Brooklyn, NY-based MakerBot Industries. Instead of using printing ink or toner on flat sheets of paper, 3-D printers produce layers of material to create 3-D models. According to MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis, the Replicator 2 has been optimized for use with a renewable bioplastic “build product” called Polylactic acid (PLA) that comes in the form of filament on a spool through the printer in order to manufacture 3-D models. At $2,199, the entry-level Replicator 2 isn’t exactly cheap, but as expected, the cost of these 3-D printing devices is coming down over time.

“We’re building a whole new industry in Brooklyn,” Pettis said last week at a New America NYC event on the state of U.S. innovation, adding that his growing company recently hired 35 people, and plans to add more workers soon. (Watch this awesome video of the new Replicator 2.)

As the Maker movement gains momentum, Anderson detects the emergence (or re-emergence) of the American spirit of tinkering and building, re-tooled and made user-friendly for the Internet Age. “When I went to high-school we still had industrial arts, shop class, and home economics,” Anderson says. “There was a notion that those skills were the roots of the middle class. Then, as many manufacturing jobs left the country because of cheaper labor in Asia, we lost that sense that these were skills worth having.”

Anderson says the great virtue of the digital-manufacturing movement is that today’s builder doesn’t need to master an underlying skill-set of manufacturing engineering. “In the same way that you don’t need to know how a printer works to press ‘print,’” he says, “you don’t need to know how a desktop manufacturing tool works to press ‘make.’” Today, you can upload your design to a cloud-based printing service and order 1,000 units of your model. “You don’t need to be a company, you don’t need permission, you don’t need to fly to China,” Anderson says. “It’s just point-and-click, and they take credit cards.”

Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered in Queens, New York for the annual World Maker Faire, a family friendly extravaganza that featured the latest software and hardware for do-it-yourself doers. It’s fitting that this event took place in New York City, the design capital of the world, Anderson told me. All kinds of weird projects were on display, including the event’s hit, the Lego Pancake Maker. But perhaps the best thing about this conference is that it explicitly cultivates children to become interested in science and technology.

Witness young Audrey Armstrong, age 9, who built a timer-controlled blinking LED circuit with a photo resistor to control the rate of the blinking. Or 15-year-old Chip Mahoney, who made a cool pinhole Polaroid camera. One of the best features of the Maker movement is its focus on youth, because that’s the future of American innovation.

Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg got into the spirit, officially proclaiming last week to be “Maker Week” in the Big Apple. “Learning and trying new things are key to everyone’s personal development,” Bloomberg declared. “The successes our city has enjoyed had to start somewhere, and many of us have dreamed big dreams in garages, laboratories, or in the classroom of an inspiring teacher. ‘Maker Week’ is a terrific opportunity to celebrate all these dreams, and to look forward to more of them coming true with the help of a little talent and a lot of perseverance and hard work.”

The next step in this process is what Anderson and others have called the industrialization of the Maker movement. In other words, moving what remains a largely hobbyist phenomenon into the commercial realm, enabling individual makers to generate revenue from their designs and products. “MakerBot is a great example, but we now have half a dozen companies that have come out of the Maker movement that are generating tens of millions in revenues,” Anderson says. “This could scale to have a bigger economic impact than the Web, and the reason I say ‘bigger’ is that the physical world is a bigger economy than the digital world. E-Commerce was just a new way of selling existing products. What if we have a new way of making new products?”

As for Anderson, the WIRED editor-in-chief has come a long way on his DIY drone quest since flying his family’s radio-controlled aircraft into a tree at a local Berkeley, Calif. park. But it hasn’t been completely smooth flying. One year later, Anderson almost prompted a minor national security scare after launching a camera-equipped radio-controlled airplane — once again out with his kids on a weekend science experiment – that happened to crash into a tree 60-feet above the property of the secure Dept. of Energy’s famous research facility, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., near Anderson’s home. Local emergency services responded, and the Feds were notified. The local fire-and-rescue team finally had to blast Anderson’s plane out of the tree with a high-pressure stream of water.

“I promise not to fly over secure national labs anymore,” Anderson pledged at the time. Better to let humans handle the design, and robots the navigation. But don’t think that Anderson was discouraged. On the contrary, if there’s one big lesson to come out of the Maker movement, it’s that mistakes can be valuable, if they’re viewed as learning experiences.

This ethos of open-source learning, collaboration, and a willingness — even eagerness — to fail, bears a striking similarity to the guiding philosophy of some of Silicon Valley’s most famous companies and startups. It’s a variant of the “hacker culture,” espoused by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Will do-it-yourself Makers displace American industrial icons such as IBM, GE, and Boeing? Not any time soon, and in this respect Anderson’s book suffers from a slightly inflated sense of optimism about the movement. But that’s forgivable — and in fact, it’s Anderson’s job to skate to where the puck is going to be.

“Chris Anderson is someone who makes things, and makes things happen,” says Makerbot’s Pettis. Anderson’s role is to highlight important technologies that point toward a better future for the United States and the world, one in which individuals are empowered to enrich our society, culture and economy through their own personal genius.