Makers are the jazz musicians of science and technology......smashing together ideas from lots of different fields in a relatively spontaneous way. Sometimes makers end up producing awesome products or making extraordinary art, and this is great. But I want us to start thinking bigger.
Over the past few weeks, I've been reading an article or two a day in Nature Magazine about new trends in fabrication research. The technologies that I've read about are far out, but not that far out. In the papers that I am posting here, you will find citations that tell you exactly how to accomplish the very same technological feats as the researchers who wrote them did.
The reason I am posting them though, is that I think academic researchers are notoriously bad at figuring out what to actually do with the technologies they've invented. That is because their goals are often extremely lofty and they can't be bothered with the nuts and bolts of actually building useful products.
The academics' job is to prove the concept and develop the basic functionality. The maker's job is to put new technologies to creative use. Makers are scrappy and practical. Practical, that is, in the sense that the things that most people are doing in most maker spaces are distinctly possible. They are usually new applications or combinations of existing technologies. A lot of times makers are the ones to bring new technologies down to earth so to speak--by figuring out how to accomplish the same task using scrap for example, instead of expensive laboratory equipment.
Conclusions of academic research papers are often very vague. The scientists believe in the potential of their ideas, but they are absent in the next step of building products or putting their fundamental research to practical use. I think that is where makers can start coming into the picture.
So, without further ado, here are four technologies that makers are positioned to take on and do amazing things with:
1. ) Soft Robotics
As the paper I've linked to explains, most robots that we use today have rigid arms and minimal joints which makes them unwieldy, dangerous, and bad at gripping. New technologies are emerging for building robots made from silicon and other rubbery substances. Rather than having "joints" like most robots, these bio-inspired robots use air pressure, heating, electronic impulses, and mechanical lengthening and shortening of wires in order to reproduce the more nuanced, flexible movement that we see in living creatures. Here is a really cool instructable that teaches you how to make an air-powered gripper like the ones described in the paper.
2.) Self Assembly / Programmable Materials
Here's a link to the paper that I read, but I'll warn you that it's a little bit dense and too advanced for what I think your average maker would know what to do with / be able to manage. Nevertheless, the idea of programmable self-assembly is going to be huge soon, because it adds a whole new dimension to fabrication--time. Think 4D printing, but simpler than that for now. I don't have an instructable for you just yet, but here is something that Skylar Tibbets, the head of the Self Assembly lab at MIT developed, that I think demonstrates what self-assembly is, why it is useful, and how to carry it out better than any words I can write possibly could.
This is a stretch, but I've got some ideas about it. The next generation of 3D printers is going to allow for incredibly high resolution 3D printing at about 10 times the rate of printers we are currently using. What I think this means for us is that microfluidics are going to become something that makers can play around with, which means cool new kinds of sensors and possibly even nanotechnology. Here is a cool article I read about a method for making highly precise quantum dots. The process described in this article can be carried out with a 3D printed microfluidic channel, some albeit extremely dangerous chemicals, and a tank of argon gas.
We've all seen cool quadricopter drones in makerspaces, and there are about a million instructables about how to make them. What the article I've linked to describes are tiny drones that can do wild things like fly around in enclosed spaces or simply be incredibly small. I think that this is a space where maker's are uniquely equipped to start building wild new inventions and applications for civilian and even personal life that the scientists who are developing this technology never would have imagined.