Inventors and tinkerers have always been around, but until recently most “makers” toiled away in secluded basements and garages, fashioning their creations from homemade materials. All that’s changed now. With new desktop design and manufacturing tools, affordable and accessible building materials, and the power of the Internet to rally funders and get the word out, even the Girl Scout down the street and the retired hobbyist across town can now launch a company and sell products that were once the strict domain of corporate titans and old-school factories.
The maker movement may well be the next industrial revolution. If nothing else, it’s leveling the playing field and putting a novel spin on innovation. The following are some of the dreamers and builders who are leading the DIY charge.
1. Limor Fried: Adafruit Industries
Known for her pink hair and lip ring, Limor Fried, an MIT engineer and lifelong electronics tinkerer, founded Adafruit in 2005 to help other inventors track down parts for their DIY projects. Her 15,000-square-foot factory in New York City makes and sells open-source electronic hardware kits, a good portion of them designed by Fried herself. Plus, it offers third-party products approved by Adafruit. Popular sellers include the MintyBoost Kit, a portable device charger encased in an Altoids tin. The website also offers forums and video tutorials (including how to make a DIY bike stereo and a wireless music veto button for Spotify). On Wednesday nights there’s even a live “Ask an Engineer” video chat for pressing questions and a chance to trade ideas with other makers.
2. Dale Dougherty: Maker Media
This trailblazing champion of makers, innovators and DIYers everywhere launched Make Magazine in 2005, followed by Maker Faires the next year. The idea was to bring solitary crafters, designers and hobbyists together. Dougherty’s magazine is now the go-to maker bible, and last year nearly 100 Maker Faire events (festivals for geeks of all ages to showcase and share their innovative gadgets and designs) sprouted up around the globe. Even the White House plans to jump on the Maker Faire bandwagon later this year. Next up for Dougherty: the Maker Education Initiative, aimed at inspiring the next generation of makers by engaging more kids in creative projects that boost problem-solving, design and technology skills.
3. Nathan Seidle: SparkFun Electronics
Founded in 2003 when Seidle was a college junior majoring in electrical engineering, SparkFun is the e-tailer he wishes had been online then. Seidle envisioned a place where anyone could get parts to build their DIY electronics projects. Products would be presented with clear photos offering multiple views, plenty of data and online tutorials. Today, the $20 million Boulder, Colorado, parts wholesaler offers just that to makers around the world, as well as classes and workshops. Everything sold — from breakout boards to LCDs to sound detectors — is open source and designed to empower experienced and newbie makers alike to create and have fun.
4. Sylvia Todd: Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show
Making isn’t just for twenty- and thirty-something wunderkinds and middle-aged mad scientists. Kids are getting in on the act, too, and 12-year-old Sylvia Todd is taking the lead. After attending a few Maker Faires with her dad, this real-life wunderkind got him to start videotaping her making things in a white lab coat at home. She was only 8, but Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show (a DIY web series) took off. Before long, Make Magazine asked the spunky pre-teen to create some episodes for its site, and the TEDx invites started rolling in. To date, the show – with its wide-ranging episodes on “everything cool and worth making” (think paper rockets, an LOL (Lots of LEDs) shield kit, and squishy circuits) – has received over 1.5 million views.
5. Zach Kaplan: Inventables
Zach Kaplan co-founded Inventables in 2002 to give product developers (mainly at big companies) the materials and technologies they needed for research and design. But then the digital manufacturing revolution happened, and suddenly anyone could invent and produce products on their desktops. Trouble was these mom-and-pop startups couldn’t buy smaller quantities of the same materials the big guys bought. Kaplan quickly saw the light. Today, anyone with a product dream and a credit card can access Inventables’ vast inventory of cork, styrene, laser cutters, super-strength adhesives and resins for purchase in any size or amount.
6. Chris Anderson: 3D Robotics
No list of pioneering makers would be complete without Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and author of influential books, including "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution." He’s long argued that 3-D printing, open-source design, and online marketing platforms are allowing a vast army of inventors and basement tinkerers to unleash their creations via desktop manufacturing to compete with the big guys. But Anderson, a father of five, is also walking his talk. In 2009, he co-founded 3D Robotics, a maker of small inexpensive camera-equipped UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) — better known as personal drones — for use in agriculture, mapping, construction and just for fun. He first developed them at his dining room table with the help of his young son. Not long ago he quit his day job and is now living the maker dream he helped define.
7. Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler & Charles Adler: Kickstarter
Ever wish you had the big bucks to fund your favorite indie filmmakers, artists, musicians, game designers, and tech wizards, but your bank account says no? Have your own project or product that’s dying on the vine for lack of cash? When this trio launched Kickstarter in 2009, they knew they had a promising idea that would let a few ordinary folks pool their funds (even just $10 or $25 a piece) to bring life to creative projects dreamed up by other ordinary folks. Since then crowdfunding has exploded beyond their wildest imaginings. To date, 6.1 million Kickstarter members have contributed over $1 billion (yes, billion) to some 60,000 creative endeavors that might otherwise have remain unrealized — everything from 6 Academy Award-nominated films to a tiny personal orbiting spacecraft.
8. Mark Hatch & Jim Newton: TechShop
If anyone embodies the spirit of the maker movement, it’s these guys. Jim Newton holds several design patents and was a science adviser for Discovery Channel’s MythBusters. Mark Hatch is author of "The Maker Movement Manifesto." But their greatest gift to makerdom may well be TechShops — “part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center.” For a monthly or annual membership fee, hobbyists, entrepreneurs and inventors now have a meetup space to fiddle around in, learn new maker skills, and share ideas with others of their kind. TechShops offer state-of-the-art tools like laser cutters and high-end design software, classes, on-site retail stores, and plenty of geeky camaraderie. There are currently eight open for business with more in the works.
9. Ben Kaufman: Quirky
It was just a matter of time before someone created crowdsourcing for the maker set. Call it Quirky — a “social product development” company that solicits invention ideas from regular folks (thousands are submitted each week), lets other regular folks help decide which ones will become reality (at free-form Thursday night “evaluations”), then works to design, manufacture and market those products with ongoing input from members. Ben Kaufman launched Quirky in 2009. Since then, over 800,000 members and the Quirky team have voted on and brought some 300 products to market — everything from kitchen gadgets to garden tools to smart home devices. Products are sold at big-box retailers like Target and Staples, as well as on the Quirky site. Best of all, those who contribute to a product’s development get a cut of the profits.
10. Ayah Bdeir: LittleBits
A graduate of the MIT Media Lab, Ayah Bdeir is a leading promoter of open-source hardware as a way to inspire anyone with an invention bug. And she means anyone — even non-engineers and the technologically challenged. Her answer is littleBits, a 3-year-old company that produces open-source electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets (“the pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks of the 21st century”). Akin to LEGO components, each bit has a particular function, such as light, sound, motors, and sensors. With them, toddlers and adult tinkerers alike can hatch complex creations instantly (everything from light-up party jackets to sound-activated toy robots) without extensive electronics knowledge. Bdeir’s littleBits kits have won numerous awards and even reside in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
11. Peter Weijmarshausen: Shapeways
Since 2007, Peter Weijmarshausen’s company, Shapeways, has brought to life over 1 million 3-D printed products designed by ordinary makers. Anyone with an idea for a toy, gadget, jewelry or home accessory can upload a 3-D model to Shapeways, choose from over 30 materials (from plastic and steel to gold and sandstone), and have a real-life version (printed by the company’s high-end 3-D printers) in their hands within a couple of weeks—all for a reasonable price. Shapeways facilities, which Weijmarshausen envisions as factories of the future, ship products anywhere in the world. The website also allows makers to buy and sell creations.
12. Bre Pettis: MakerBot
With a background in puppetry, including a stint with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London, and a few years under his belt teaching art to Seattle middle-schoolers, Bre Pettis might seem an unlikely candidate to helm a groundbreaking 3-D printer manufacturer. Did we mention he also plays clawhammer banjo in his spare time? But behind the scenes, Pettis has always been a denizen of the maker underworld, co-founding a hacker collective in Brooklyn where he first built his own 3-D printer because he couldn’t afford to buy one and starting a popular DIY podcast for Make Magazine. Today his company MakerBot, founded in 2009, is bringing 3-D printing to desktops everywhere, giving engineering pros and basement inventors alike the chance to build sophisticated models affordably and whenever inspiration strikes.
13. Emile Petrone: Tindie
After a favorable response to his question on Reddit about starting an easy-to-use and inexpensive e-commerce site for “indie innovators,” Emile Petrone started Tindie. That was two years ago, and his site (often dubbed “Etsy for electronics”) is thriving with over 10,000 orders, 2,000 products listed, and over 75,000 visitors a month. Sellers can set up shop and list their small-batch, niche wares for free to test the waters (items range from soil moisture sensors to a solder paste press). As the middleman, Tindie takes 5 percent of each sale, plus credit card fees — the lowest rate out there, says Petrone.
14. Neil Gershenfeld: Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT
Neil Gershenfeld may well be the granddaddy of the maker movement. Back in 2001, he started a class called “How to Make (Almost) Anything” to teach his research students at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) how to operate high-tech equipment that made and measured things. To his surprise, demand for the class skyrocketed. Turns out a lot of non-engineering students wanted to learn how to make stuff too — and so did the public. Since then, Gershenfeld’s “fab labs” have spread across the planet, aimed at anyone with a hankering to create. A global network of makers, from rural India to Boston’s inner city, now have access to laser cutters, numerically controlled milling machines, wood routers, and programming tools that allow them to make their dream products come true.
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