This so-called "maker movement" is arguably a big and important development in the American economy. If you want to get a better sense of it, read Jim's late-2012 article, which both describes this phenomenon and also puts it in a larger context.
Here, I want to step back from the reporting we've done on this from various American cities and share some of what was said about this maker movement by people who know it well and whom I heard speak a week or so ago in Boulder, Colorado, at an unusual week-long conference held there annually, the Conference on World Affairs, which I previously discussed here and here.
Two different panels addressed the maker movement. (I use that term because it's been widely adopted and I don't have a better one.) That adds up to almost three hours of commentary, questions, answers, and discussion. It's both impossible and unnecessary in this space to convey all of what was said, so I will distill and conflate from the two panels what I found to be the most interesting lines of comment, and organize it here into three categories: (1) the development of this area of the economy; (2) some informed speculation about where this is heading; and (3) some of the intriguing challenges and dilemmas all this will increasingly pose in the years to come.
Development of This Part of the Economy
Jules Pieri, the cofounder and CEO of the product-launch platform The Grommet, noted that what's so remarkable about the maker movement (words, she says, we wouldn't have used even a few years ago) is that the tools to create enterprises—and especially physical products—have become accessible to just about anyone. And that's changing how companies are getting formed.
Pieri offered her own experience as an example, noting that she started her career as an industrial designer for tech companies. Until very recently, industrial design often had to be done in the context of a large company, because the tools to do it were exclusively the territory of big companies. But that's not the way it works any more. People can go right into creating an enterprise or product, all by themselves. She pointed to three important "enablers" of this sea-change.
The first is the availability of "hacker" or makerspaces. There are some 2,000 of them around the world, Pieri said. These places make expensive equipment (sometimes worth millions of dollars) like 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computerized machine tools available to anyone. "Even more importantly," she said, "you get access to people who can show you how to use these things." Pieri noted that the stylish iPhone and iPad DODOcase (which Jim Fallows wrote about in his article) was created in a makerspace. So was the little dongle for Square, the credit-card-processing and payment system. And she went on to list many, many other familiar products.