I recently came to the conclusion that the maker movement is not a passing nerd fad. It is the stirring of a revolution in the same way that hobbyistic interest in computers marked the stirring of a revolution on the 1980s.
To really hammer in the parallel for myself, I keep thinking back to the scenes at the beginning of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, in which Wozniak is portrayed as this freak genius for having built a computer from scratch. I don’t doubt for a second that he was a complete genius, but I just want to note that he was a member of a club in which people built computers and traded secrets. Granted, Wozniak’s computer was much better than everyone else’s, but the fact that he did not up and invent a personal computer from scratch is important. The PC came from a hobbyistic movement much like the one I am a part of.
I think of that early computer scene when I am at Artisan’s Asylum, my local makerspace, and I see all of the 3D printers that everyone has been built or is at least tweaking. Some of these printers have been built pretty much from scratch--not because these people are freak geniuses but because the information is flowing very freely. This is the kind of environment where really useable personal fabricators--more user-friendly, versatile, faster--are going to arise, just as personal computers did.
Rather than thinking of the maker movement as a bunch of amateurs interested in personal fabrication, as Neil Gershenfeld, the founder for the Center For Bits And Atoms at MIT describes them, I like to think of the maker movement as a kind of academic science research. Sure, most people get interested in the maker movement because they want to build something with “a market of one,” as Mr. Gershenfeld says.
But the way the Maker actually operates is more like a science researcher in a science lab. Just like in a chemistry lab, if you want to make something new, you’ve got to find prior papers that show you how to get close to what you want. Instead of peer reviewed journals though, Makers use tutorials, Instructables, and blog posts. Then, once you exhaust all of the resources, you make a couple of small leaps to connect the disparate parts. The, and this is the kicker, a lot of people write up and publish how they did what they did. (See Instructables)
For example, here are three articles about how to make your own 3D printer.
Rep Rap - This page is particularly incredible. It holds the instructions for how to make about 15 different 3D printers from scratch--all of these 3D printers having the capability to print the parts to make a new 3D printer
Arduino Controlled 3D printer/CNC mill combo - This is pretty much the ultimate maker movement project.
These are thorough walkthroughs that tell you exactly how to do something incredibly complicated. (Unlike most science journals though, this knowledge is completely free). What is the point of posting these articles? And more importantly, what would be the point of reading them? I believe that the object is not just to make a 3D printer or explain how to make them; I believe that these articles are fundamental research and calls for improvement, and I believe the makers who make these fabricators are seeking to understand the fundamental principles of 3D printing and innovate.
This free, open sourced research, I hope, is a revolution not just in personal fabrication, but in how much of science is done. The reason I think it is such a big deal that people are independently improving the design is that this so strongly reflects the revolution in computers, and if this revolution continues, my 60 year old mom will be 3D printing (and milling, and using other forms of fabrication) before long.