Democratized tools of production: New technologies spurring the maker movement


The discourse surrounding the Maker Movement, particularly in the political spectrum, focuses heavily on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, manufacturing, and jobs (Kalil, Extreme Marshmellow Canons, 2012). It is the technology and tools that are ushering in “the new industrial revolution” (Anderson, 2012). Through democratizing access to these tools, “anyone can change the world” (Hatch, 2014 p.10). Makerspaces are said to give communities facing social and economic challenges the ability to create jobs, innovate, and grow small businesses, through access to the tools of production (Barjarin, 2014) (Gershenfeld, 2005).

However, the maker movement is about more than just the technology and the term ‘Maker’ is not limited to those engaged with tools of digital fabrication. In Chris Anderson’s book Makers, he writes,

We are all Makers. We are born Makers (just watch a child’s fascination with drawing, blocks, Lego, or crafts), and many of us retain that love in our hobbies and passions. It’s not just about workshops, garages, and man caves. If you love to cook, you’re a kitchen Maker and your stove is your workbench (homemade food is best, right?). If you love to plan you’re a garden Maker. Knitting and sewing, scrapbooking, beading, and cross-stitching—all Making (Anderson, 2012 p.13)

The idea that ‘we are all Makers’ is repeated constantly through the discourse of the maker movement, yet the power and opportunity purported to emerge from this movement is strongly focused on STEM education and the ‘tools of production’. It is frequently said, as quoted above, that making is not limited to the tech experts or pro-amateurs, that cooking, coding, and bee keeping are all making (which is true) and that all are equally valuable (which much of the discourse would actually reject).

For the purpose of this series, I will define makerspaces as Make Magazine describes them,

…community centers with tools. Makerspaces combine manufacturing equipment, community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone. These spaces can take the form of loosely-organized individuals sharing space and tools, for-profit companies, non-profit corporations, organizations affiliated with or hosted within schools, universities or libraries, and more. All are united in the purpose of providing access to equipment, community, and education, and all are unique in exactly how they are arranged to fit the purposes of the community they serve. (Make Magazine & Artisan’s Asylum, 2013)

What do most makerspaces have in common? As noted in the above quote, they are cited as providing access to equipment, community, and education. The focus of this post will be on the equipment—the tools and technology (hardware and software) that these spaces create access to.

Tools and Technology

Almost every makerspace has a website that lists the tools available in the space. Everything from CNC Routers to hot glue guns may be provided, and 3D printers and laser cutters seem to be the most frequently listed. The Makerspace Playbook has a list of suggested equipment organized in two sections, Reusable Materials and Consumable Materials (Makerspace.com, 2012). Mark Hatch included a ‘Tool Up’ section in his Makerspace Manifesto that lists a range of essentials, from free coffee to metal inert gas welders (Hatch, 2014, p.24). Chris Anderson devotes an entire chapter to “The Tools of Transformation” (Anderson, 2012 p. 81) and an appendix dedicated to the tools required to create a 21st century workshop (Anderson, 2012 p.231-239).

These “tools of transformation” are driving the maker movement forward. Dale Dougherty, one of the founders of the maker movement wrote,

The Maker Movement is spurred by the introduction of new technologies such as 3D printing and the Arduino microcontroller; new opportunities created by faster prototyping and fabrication tools as well as easier sourcing of parts and direct distribution of physical products online; and the increasing participation of all kinds of people in interconnected communities, defined by interests and skills online as well as hyper-local efforts to convene those who share common goals. (Dougherty, The Maker Mindset, 2013)

How—and why—are these new technologies spurring the maker movement? Through an analysis of the discussion surrounding the maker movement in political, economic, and popular media, one major theme has surfaced as an answer to this question: the democratization of the tools of production.

Democratizing the Tools of Production

When something is democratized it means that it is accessible to everyone. When used in the context of the maker movement, ‘democratization’ refers to the decreasing cost of the tools and technologies credited with spurring the movement. For examples of this thread see: (Hatch, 2014) (Anderson, 2012) (Gershenfeld, 2005) (Kalil & Miller, Announcing the First White House Maker Faire, 2014). The cost of 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, and 3D scanners has dramatically decreased over the past five years. As Hatch notes, in 2000 a CNC package (hardware and software) cost around $100,000 and had significant barriers to participation because of the necessary training and knowledge required to operate the machines and software. CNC packages are now available for around $1500 with a much lower learning curve (Hatch, 2014 p.114). Similarly, 3D printers, once a tool used solely by corporations for prototypes with price tags ranging from $20,000 to $1,000,000, are now available at price points ranging from $600-$2,000. Granted, these aren’t industrial-grade machines, but the quality of the machines has increased almost as rapidly as the price has decreased. Additionally, the software used to run 3D printers is now available for free or at a low cost. Add Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform, into the mix at $30 and a Maker truly has the ability to make almost anything (Arduino, 2014).

The democratization of these tools is also credited as having a significant economic impact (Owyang, 2014). Statistics show that this movement “impacts global manufacturing as creation shifts geographically to local, philosophically to sustainability and legally to force the adaptation of new IP laws as people move from consuming to creating and sharing” (Owyang, 2014). The market for 3D printed products and services was $2.2 billion in 2012 and this market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 23% from 2013 to 2020, reaching $8.41 billion by 2020 (Owyang, 2014). This projected market growth of Maker output may create a significant financial opportunity for those with the access and knowledge required to use these tools of production.

Democratization = Access?

In 2013, 33.6% of makerspaces required membership and 33.3% required membership or a daily usage fee (Dougherty, Makers of Spaces, Makers of Makers, 2013). Costs of membership at maker spaces can range anywhere from $30-$200 per month, on average, and the more expensive memberships usually come with increased levels of access, for example, a building key for 24/7 access to the space. These fees are used to support the spaces: classes, equipment, insurance, and utilities. Make Magazine posted a blog series dedicated to the making of makerspaces that highlighted various types of spaces, size of spaces, space distribution, and identified expenses and sources of income (Cavalcanti, 2013). One of the original makerspaces, Artisan’s Asylum costs $80,000 per month to run a 40,000 square foot space (this includes insurance, supplies, contractors, staff, tool maintenance, etc.) and income comes from membership fees ($150 for 24/7 access), space rentals (studios at $2/sq. ft/month, pallet storage for $30/month, shelf storage for $10/month), classes which range in cost and are available to non-members, and grants/donations (Cavalcanti, 2013). Noisebridge in San Francisco has a ‘starving hacker’ membership for $40 (Cavalcanti, 2013). For the most part these organizations are not seeking to make money, they simply need to cover operating costs. However, these fees create barriers, and in some cases, reinforce the historical social structure of the technical DIY and maker movement: white masculinity.

Dale Dougherty wrote an interesting piece comparing makerspaces to health clubs. He wrote,

Today’s health clubs started out years ago as bodybuilding gyms. They were designed to meet the needs of a narrow, largely male membership. They weren’t particularly friendly to newcomers or casual users. Yet something changed in our culture around physical fitness, and health clubs become more open and accommodating, to broaden membership by welcoming women as well as men, and the serious as well as the casual members. This is what we’re seeing as makerspaces transition from volunteer efforts serving a small group of members (Dougherty, Makerspaces are Working Out, 2014).

Gym memberships give you access to equipment, as do makerspace memberships. This is an interesting analogy, particularly because it provides a model for actual democratized access to the tools and technologies at the heart of this movement. Healthworks Community Fitness runs two nonprofit gyms and fitness opportunities for women and children in low-income areas where membership fees are determined on a sliding scale based on income. One member notes that, “exercising at all in this working-class, ethnic neighborhood wasn’t easy before Healthworks opened. The few fitness centers around were too expensive or too crowded, she says” (Pfeiffer, 2010). Carrying this model to makerspaces is not much of a stretch. There are existing makerspaces offering free access, like the Mt. Elliot Makerspace in Detroit, and others that might be able to offer a sliding scale model, similar to the Healthworks gym, in order to cover the expenses associated with running and maintaining a makerspace.

Another possible model for access in low-income communities are library makerspaces. This arm of the maker movement started in 2011 with the development of the first public library makerspace, the FFL Fab Lab, at the Fayetteville Free Library in Fayetteville, NY (disclosure statement: the author of this blog post was part of the creation and development of the FFL Fab Lab). Library makerspaces have grown at an astounding rate over the past three years and have garnered substantial media coverage (American Libraries Magazine, 2013) (Torrone, 2011) (Mitchell, 2014) (Bagely, 2012) (Ginsberg, 2013) (Kroski, 2013) (Hamilton, 2012). As these spaces are folded into the existing library space, budget, training, and IT structure, it is possible to create access models that mirror other library services that are supported by community tax dollars and free to use. Library makerspaces are facilitated by librarians and connect directly to their mission, “…to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” (Lankes, 2012) The role of libraries in the maker movement is a recurring theme that will be discussed in future posts as well.

Is Access Enough?

If the rise of the maker movement and these new tools for democratized production are going to create opportunity, how do we ensure that all people truly have access and training? It is essential to understand and address the social structures and identity categories that are inherent in the maker movement before the tools of production that play such a prominent role are truly democratized. Dunbar-Hester succinctly addresses this issue:

It is especially important that activists—and also scholars—be wary of advancing a romanticized notion of voluntarism or participation that celebrates the agency of peers or the centrality of technology, without seeking to understand the difficult and elusive work of building and maintaining structures of participation, especially egalitarian participation (Dunbar-Hester, 2014 p. 86).

The maker movement creates a hybrid of digital and face-to-face community interaction and has been cited to empower individuals by creating access to tools and technology that democratize the means of production. The promise is that these spaces enable communities, including those facing social and economic challenges (TASCHA’s focus), to create jobs, innovate, and grow small businesses. It’s an open question though to what extent this is occurring, and when and where it is not, to determine what can be done to achieve these aims.

This blog post is the second of 5 of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” See the first blog post here.

Access the works cited for this blog post


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