The modern ‘Maker’ movement and the return of DIY - part 1

May 2nd, 2014:

People are once again building and inventing things for themselves. After two generations of Americans that had no idea how to change the oil in their cars, much less how their toaster worked, people are building things for themselves again. DIY is back. Sure, hobbyists have always been making things like RC cars and Ham Radios but that has largely been smaller groups with niche interests. With the modern maker movement, people re building their own electronics, computers and simple machines.

It’s an interesting swing in the pendulum of history. Let’s start with the Greatest Generation, and their children, the Baby Boomers. There were quite a few of them that worked on their own houses and fixed their own appliances. Many households had full sets of tools in the garage. When they wanted something simple, like a garden cart or a work table, they made it. When their cars needed small repairs, they did them in their own garage.

This scaled back quite a bit through the 1980s and had changed quite a bit by the time I got to high school in the early 1990s. Products were starting to become more and more disposable. There were still shops where you could get some things repaired but usually when a small appliance of piece of electronics wore out, you disposed of it rather than repair it. My personal experience was a little unique, mostly because I was raised by this guy (link to dad’s boat article). A lot of things got fixed or built from scratch at my house, but that was the exception not the rule, most of the kids I grew up with didn’t know how to use tools or fix anything.

There were a few pockets of people building things. Many people still built their own computers and a few boomers even had businesses custom building computers for people. In 1996 Michael Dell started selling cheap computers over the internet. In just a few years, those businesses disappeared and DIY computers were back to being a niche hobby.

In the 2000s, the housing bubble brought about a renaissance in DIY home improvement. Everyone knew at least one person who had gotten a good deal on a run-down house, spent a year or so fixing it up and then sold it for a huge profit. People were fixing up their own houses and flipping them at a feverous rate. Unfortunately, by 2008, the bubble had burst, and we all knew someone who had lost their shirt trying to flip a house, or were trapped in one they couldn’t sell.

With that historical perspective, the modern maker movement is something I am very excited about. People are once again inventing and building some really incredible stuff.  A few key things have come together to make this possible.

  • The internet has been harnessed to open source development. Forums and live chats keep ideas flowing. There are also large libraries of plans, 3D files and circuit diagrams available to be used, modified and improved upon. One of the largest collections is on Instructables.com, they have literally thousands of projects available for download.
  • Arduino has made controlling simple motors and sensors relatively easy, opening the doors to development of all manner of simple mechanical devices. But it doesn’t stop there. I recently read that someone had made their own cell phone with an Arduino. A DIY cell phone is certainly something you never would have heard about 5 years ago.
  • If you need more than the Arduino can offer, or if your project really needs to be computer controlled, there is always the educational tool, Raspberry Pi. It’s a simple, fully functioning, Linux motherboard with way more computing power than the Macintosh 2si I had in college. It doesn’t come with creature comforts like a screen or a mouse or even a housing, but for $39, you can computer control just about anything.
  • If you need a housing, Makerbot has a hobbyist sized FDM machine that will allow you to build pretty much any plastic part you need, be it armatures, suspension or entire housings. I know, they used to be open source and they used to sell a kit to build your own FDM machine. All of that changed when they were acquired by a parent company. But they still sell off the shelf units for less than $3K.
  • Lastly, Make magazine has publishing all things maker since 2007. Their back issues are a treasure trove of how to articles and project ideas.

All of these things have come together to allow people with very little formal training build their own Arduino cell phones, Raspberry Pi tablets and more esoteric projects like a laser engraver for Trader Joe’s Meringues (personal favorite).

I have just scratched the surface on a much larger movement. For a more in depth look at the maker movement and some very cool projects, check out next week’s blog post by Jake Davis.