The Maker Movement Takes Hold

One hundred and fifty-two small, medium, and large manufacturers ranked their most pressing concerns in the areas of growth, talent, product development, and operations in a 2017 poll taken by Polaris MEP, a non-profit organization that guides RI manufacturers towards sustainable growth. The poll questions that received the most buzz contained phrases like “breaking into new markets”, “understanding new market applications”, and “meeting entrepreneurs with an idea that needs to be manufactured”. Clearly, RI manufacturers are approaching growth with an entrepreneurial perspective and are acutely aware of the risks of becoming stagnant and uncompetitive.

These topics are strongly related to the Maker Movement, which became popularized due to its focus on innovation, artistry, and collaboration. Originally spurred in the early 2000s by a “hacker” social culture and the advent of universal, affordable accessibility to technology, the Maker Movement has propelled DIY entrepreneurs to produce specialized quality goods in communal workspaces for niche consumer markets.

On the surface, this movement’s low overhead model represents a more efficient and diametrically opposed alternative to the centralized, heavily capitalized, mass-production manufacturer. However, as the Maker Movement has gained ground and attention, mutually beneficial relationships have been forged between traditional manufacturers and entrepreneurial start-ups.

On one end of the spectrum, Makers gaining market share find themselves limited in production capacity: ideal production outputs are too high for the small-batch nature of their original makerspaces, yet too low to consider mass-production in China or Mexico. Traditional manufacturers have high output capacity but are paying an opportunity cost in R&D with a slow and deliberate process.

Makers and Manufacturers Collaborate

Through collaboration, small and medium-sized manufacturing firms can revitalize their presence in the marketplace with fresh ideas, while offering Makers production capacity and fabrication. In an article published by Business Horizons Volume 60, Issue 6, “Social manufacturing: When the maker movement meets interfirm production networks”, authors Hamalainen and Karjalainen, describe their findings from researching firm-individual collaboration in manufacturing industries, citing innovation and insight to new maker markets as  key advantages for  manufacturers: “Our findings suggest that firms working with individuals can potentially reap multiple benefits, including fresh ideas, broader design support, and quick delivery times.”

Skeptical members of the private business sector might be persuaded by some big manufacturers that have taken a keen interest in the value of what today’s Makers have to offer. In 2014, GE invested in bridging the gap between the Maker Movement and the mass market by opening FirstBuild, a micro-factory for household appliances where innovators team up with the global conglomerate to create prototypes. Another example is Chevron, who supports STEM education by offering free access to its CAD software to makerspaces and local educators. Communities across the country have fostered the growth of the Maker Movement by offering space and educational opportunities to encourage creativity.

Hope & Main in Warren, RI, offers food makers: “…a low-risk opportunity to test, scale and develop without the cost and liability in equipping, managing and maintaining your own commercial facility”. In addition to kitchen space and educational support, Hope & Main have teamed up with The Food Resource Business Exchange, a one-stop-shop experience where members can partner with industry professionals to access the resources and services they need to grow their businesses.

Leaders addressing the challenge of rebuilding US manufacturing would be wise to learn from these examples. In a Brookings Institution article, Five Ways the Maker Movement Can Help Catalyze a Manufacturing Renaissance, Muro and Hirshberg write, “…[for] the nation’s manufacturing and technology industries, making is stimulating a new, more creative approach that is reinventing the sector and making it more competitive. Ultimately, the movement is one modest way to renew the economy with broad engagement and experimentation at a time of uncertainty and division.”