This Week in the Future: Thousands and Thousands of Makers

Maker Faire Maker culture is moving from a small movement to the mainstream. There is no better proof of this than the attendance figures at the Maker Faire. Created in 2006 as a gathering for the MAKE magazine crowd, the Maker Faire is held in over 20 cities worldwide, with the flagship faire in the Bay Area, which pulls in more than 120,000 people. The cost of 3D printers has dropped from thousands of dollars to $400, allowing many to begin printing out whatever their imaginations can dream up. I’ve talked to many folks in the technology sector that speculate that it’s just a matter of years before you can buy a 3D printer for under $100.

It was a soggy Saturday in September when I arrived at the World Maker Faire in Flushing Meadows Queens, New York. The sky was a heavy gray that promised to rain at any moment and often. Walking past the New York Hall of science, the first thing I saw rising up into the rain clouds were the rockets. Who doesn’t love rockets on a Saturday morning? It reminded me of the can-do DIY (Do-It-Yourself) attitude that got us into space and landed us on the moon.

The crowds stormed into the tents, exhibits, classes and marketplaces of the fair. There were kids everywhere. I wasn’t sure how they all got there at once. The traffic had been terrible, parking was difficult and the No. 7 train from Manhattan was down that morning. But they made it. They were there. And they were stoked!

Nerdy Derby

The Nerdy Derby was a typical Maker Faire tent. Designed and pulled together by New York University students, the Nerdy Derby is a free-form miniature car building and racing competition that rewards creativity, cleverness and ingenuity. Kids were taught how to make racing cars and then send them down a massive undulating track. If you are of a certain age, just remember the old Boy Scout’s Pinewood Derby, only a lot more high tech and a lot cooler. Little boys and girls chased their cars as they went by, and checked their speeds with the helpful booth staff. Parents look on with broad smiles, proud of their nerds!

The faire was full of tents and booths like the Nerdy Derby. As I made my way across the grounds, I had to make room for a massive car shaped like a red and white cupcake with a gumball on top. That’s another thing about maker culture: it might be serious about making things, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. You know you’re in for a fun day when you have to dodge giant cupcake cars.

I was headed for the MAKE Live stage, where people were giving back to back talks and lectures. Each talk was broadcast live via the Internet. I was there to talk about my new book/film project Vintage Tomorrows. It’s about a futurist (me) and a historian (James H. Carrott) journeying through the world of Steampunk, makers and hackers to learn what they can teach us about the future of technology. I also did a book signing where I sat next to a 3D printer. The 3D printer was more popular than I was, but I’m not bitter.

While I was waiting to take the stage, who should I run into but Shelly Palmer and his two sons! We talked about what we had seen at the fair and then Shelly pulled out his smartphone.

“I was here for an hour,” he said flipping through the pictures on his phone. “It was all fine and geeky until I found this.” He showed me a picture on his phone. “This changes everything.”

“The company is called Shapeways,” Shelly continued. “You design anything you want, send it to them and they 3D print it and send it back to you. They can even print in stainless steel.”

“I know. It’s really cool,” I replied. I’d heard about the New York City based company from Cory Doctorow, author of the near-future science fiction novel Makers and editor at the influential blog Boing Boing.

3D Printed Part

“That thing in the guy’s hand,” Shelly pointed at the picture. “That’s a part to his kid’s stroller. That tiny part broke, but instead of ordering the part from the manufacturer, they sent him the CAD/CAM file and he printed the part in stainless steel." Shelly smiled. “That’s a big deal.”

“The economics of this are stunning,” he continued. “At a certain point, in the near future, manufacturers will not need to make or stock replacement parts – they will just print them as needed. Shortly after that, you’ll have the parts printed at a local commercial printer – and finally, you will print some things yourself at home. This will fundamentally change our economy. But there is another trajectory for this technology. It empowers makers to make things that they could never make before. 3D printing in plastic is interesting – printing in wood (saw dust mixed with a binding agent) and stainless steel changes everything."

Next to the MAKE Live book was a life size replica of the contraption from the 1960s kids board game MouseTrap. It was a massive Rube Goldberg contraption that really worked and was really, really loud. It went off at scheduled times throughout the day. I took the MAKE Live stage at 2:30pm. Unfortunately the life-size mouse trap began its scheduled show at the same time. Guess who had the bigger crowd…

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DISCLAIMERI am Intel’s futurist. I am currently on sabbatical from Intel.  My thoughts, observations and analyses are mine personally and I am not speaking on behalf of Intel.

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