Reporter's Notebook

Does the Maker Movement Matter?
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In posts in the American Futures series, James Fallows argued that the “Maker Revolution” offered new opportunities for American entrepreneurs, inventors and designers, customers, and workers. Readers report their experiences with this part of the new digitally transformed economy. (If you’d like to add examples, please write us here.)

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Graphic from the Maker City Playbook, now available online here.

A few days ago I argued that the Maker Movement finally depends on the ingenuity and effort of private entrepreneurs and of companies large and small — but that these efforts go much faster, further, and better when supported by a range of public-private collaborations.

This is consistent with the long lesson of American economic development (as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have argued in their new book, and as I have discussed over the years), in which the nation’s dominant private industries — from agriculture and energy to info-tech and aerospace and bio-tech — have been sped by publicly funded research, training programs, regulatory standards, and trade policies. (Clyde Prestowitz has a very good new Washington Monthly article on the real history of America’s economic rise, here.)

The advantages of public-private partnership apply to the new Maker Movement as well. My wife Deb and I have reported on several aspects of this, for instance the way K-12 schools, community colleges, research universities, and local “maker spaces” have fostered local hardware skills. (Selected articles here.)

Here’s a list of several recent developments:

  • The National Maker Faire is on this weekend — right now! —  in Washington. If I were in town, I would be there.
  • The White House has declared this the National Week of Making, running through next Friday. Enjoy.
  • The White House has also just announced its Champions of Change award winners, in the maker category. Congratulations!
  • In a similar vein, the Department of Education has released its own set of maker-related grant winners in the Career Technical Education (CTE) category. As Deb and I have chronicled over the months, CTE programs have repeatedly been the most inventive, practical-minded, and economically effective kinds of educational innovations we’ve seen around the country. Congrats to these winners too.
  • My friend Peter Hirshberg just yesterday released online his Maker City Playbook, which is designed to collect, compare, and disseminate useful tactics from the most effective maker zones around the country. After the jump I have one sample passage from the book; I’ll say more about it in upcoming dispatches. For now, I encourage you to give it a look; the full text is available free, online. Congrats to Peter and his colleagues for carrying out the project and to the Kauffman Foundation, whose studies I have often cited, as the main underwriter. (For the record: Deb and I have no involvement with any of these groups except as followers of their work.)
if this man were around now, he would be promoting the Makers. (Wikipedia.)

The previous two installments in this series, “The Tools Revolution” and “Agility,” of course concentrated on the private businesses, large and small, and the entrepreneurs who have created and applied the tools that are changing manufacturing in a way parallel to what the internet era has done for (and to) the creation and dissemination of ideas.

But just about every complex achievement has a complicated back story. In their recent book American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us To Forget What Made America Prosper, Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of Berkeley underscore what any honest look at economic history reveals. Namely, that the great eras of economic advancement, from England during the first modern industrial revolution, to the versions of that achievement in Germany and the United States and Japan, to the transformation of post-Mao China, have involved public efforts that promote, support, and encourage private economic innovation.

In modern China’s case, the government’s major role for better (and worse) has been obvious. Similarly with the 20th century rise of Japan and Germany — and England through its era of most rapid growth as well, for those who have actually read Wealth of Nations and know that it is something quite different from a libertarian tract. This is a case I tried to lay out in detail long ago in an Atlantic story called “How the World Works,” which is online.

For now I’ll skip the rest of the argument about how public/private interactions have been so much more fruitful than either alternative: pure statism, or entrepreneurs without the benefit of public investment (for instance, in medical sciences, agriculture, aerospace, info-tech in America), public education, public infrastructure, public rules of fair competition, and so forth. I direct you instead to the Hacker and Pierson book — or to a musical you might have heard of, called Hamilton.

Instead I’m using the occasion of tomorrow’s kickoff of the National Maker Week, at the White House, to note some of the public ways in which city, state, and national institutions have been encouraging the private I’ve mentioned and will describe in further installments.


1) From the White House. You can read about the “Nation of Makers” events that kick off on June 17 here. If the current administration were Republican, its support for small-scale entrepreneurs involved in tangible manufacturing would seem natural. Since the current administration is not Republican, I take its support as a sign that maybe — God willing? — we might actually have a case of agreement on practical economic advancement for Americans, beyond the normal national-level paralysis. Maybe?

Please let me dream for a minute.

The Week of Making kicks off on June 17 (White House)


9th grade student Franke Le, left, telling other students about the advanced manufacturing equipment on which he had already received a special-proficiency certificate, at Indian Springs High School in San Bernardino, California, last year. (James Fallows)

An ongoing theme of our reports from “career technical” schools—like this high school in Georgia and this community college in Mississippi and these high schools and tech-training centers in California and South Carolina, and these colleges in Vermont and Maine—is that for people with appropriate training, medium-wage skilled jobs actually exist:

  • At this moment in U.S. economic history, the demand for people who can work as high-end repair technicians, in construction trades, in manufacturing factories, in high-end shipping and logistics jobs, and in other fields is relatively strong.
  • And at this moment in technical and economic history, the “maker tools” that have democratized the process of hardware innovation are fostering the growth of the new companies that (according to the important Kauffman foundation report, discussed here) account for nearly all the net job creation in the country. 

That’s background for an interesting new column by Conor Sen in Bloomberg View. The title is the sobering-sounding “The End of the U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance (such as it was).” But the trends it reports are very different from what you might infer from that headline.

Job openings in manufacturing are at a 15-year high. Layoffs are at a long-term low. Wages are rising faster in manufacturing than in the economy as a whole. The unemployment rate in manufacturing is below the overall average. Please go to the item for the full presentation, but here is one of several representative charts, showing continued recovery after the crash of 2008.

From Bloomberg View, with BLS data.


Americans don’t make things any more? Tell it to (from left) First Joe, Pauly, and Capt. Jerry, who are building the Mon Tiki Largo on Montauk, Long Island.  You can’t make a 100-foot boat with 3-D printers, yet.  (David Ryan)

After these two articles on why the Maker Movement matters — “Part 1, the Tools Revolution” and “Part 2, Agility,” I’ve received a lot of replies from people in the middle of this transformation in existing companies, or new ones they are starting.

Let’s kick off with two. First, from reader David Ryan, a one-time filmmaker who in recent years has become a boat-builder and charter-boat captain on Montauk, Long Island. He responds to the observation by Liam Casey (“Mr. China”), in this WSJ interview by Matthew Kassell, about why some manufacturing is coming back to the United States. Ryan writes:

"Where it’s made doesn’t really matter, when you look at the margin breakdown—you mostly win and lose in the selling, not in the making." [So Liam Casey says.]

What I learned financing, producing, and distributing my films is that even if you are very good at what you do and are unopposed in the market, no less than 30% of your cumulative enterprise effort will go into marketing,promotion, and sales. And that's if you are very good and unopposed. If you're merely good, or have competitors, or both, the percentage will be higher. 

Much of the reason for this higher than in he past percentage (remember, "if you build a better mouse trap...."?) is a result of the profound democratization of communications tools. As previously mentioned, this democratization has been a boon to peer-to-peer communication (videos for fixing sanders and smartphones) but my own opinion is it hasn't made the task of marketing, promotion, and sales any easier (when everyone is super, no one is super) and this would seem to be supported by Mr. China's assertion about where the battle is won and lost. 

Because of this and other things I believe I perceive about the effect of the (hyper) democratization of communication tools, I am somewhat more leery, perhaps even bearish about the effect that the democratization of manufacture tools can and will have on that sector of our economy and society. 

The Mon Tiki Largo under construction. (David Ryan)

Speaking of manufacturing, Mon Tiki Largo [the next charter boat Ryan is building, shown above] is scheduled to launch in about 10 days. No one's 3-D printing 100 passenger sailing catamarans --not yet at least!


Latest cohort of Highway 1 fellows — hardware entrepreneurs at Liam Casey’s startup center in San Francisco.

Following this earlier post about the significance of the Maker Movement, and before an upcoming report on an unusual and significant maker/startup space in Louisville, I want to mention a very interesting WSJ interview by Matthew Kassel with my friend Liam Casey. It was Liam whom I presented, only half jokingly, as “Mr. China” when describing his role as connector of world commerce to Chinese manufacturing, back in 2007. More recently, I mentioned his shift of some manufacturing activity back from China to the San Francisco area, here

Some samples of Liam’s comments now, which bear on the U.S. manufacturing revival (and challenges thereto):

WSJ: If “geography is history,” do you think it’s possible—or even desirable—to reproduce these international supply chains in, say, the U.S.?

MR. CASEY: … I don’t care if I’m producing a product in California, Texas, North Carolina, Shenzhen or somewhere in Europe, once I’ve got access to raw materials for producing the product, a skilled workforce to make the product, and a global logistics platform to be able to move the product from the source directly to a consumer anywhere in the world.

Where it’s made doesn’t really matter, when you look at the margin breakdown—you mostly win and lose in the selling, not in the making.


MR. CASEY: We’re working on a very high-profile product in San Francisco. We’re doing all the engineering and development, and we are trying very hard to assemble it in North America.

Because of the crowdfunding campaign, we have the data—we know that there’s an appetite for the product—and the raw material is coming from the region, so we can actually build the product there.

Two years ago, we wouldn't have considered making it in the U.S. But because we have all the data from the crowdfunding—we have good information that can help the factory plan and schedule the orders over a period of time—we’re actually excited about this project. We think we can build it in the U.S.

I always found Liam to be a few months ahead of what “everyone knows” about global business. Think of what he’s saying when you hear the next speech about “we don’t / can’t build things” in the U.S. anymore.

Don’t? Only true in some cases. Can’t? Not true at all.