by Barb Schmitz, Senior Editor
Over the past several years, there’s been a confluence of new technologies that have given birth to a trend referred to as the “maker” movement, or the democratization of design. Members of this movement, the so-called “makers,” are people who can conceive, design and build products, with a healthy assist from advances in both software and hardware.
The act of “making”—the next generation of inventing and do-it-yourself—is creeping into everyday discourse, with the emerging maker movement. As maker communities spring up around the globe, a plethora of physical and virtual platforms to serve them have emerged—from platforms that inspire and teach, to those that provide access to tools and mentorship, to those that connect individuals with seed capital and potential customers.
What’s a maker?
So what exactly is a maker? It appears there are multiple definitions. Some define a maker as a person who enjoys tinkering with technology and wants to design something for fun or personal use, but not for profit. There are several consumer-level, low-cost design software tools and hardware aimed specifically at capturing the imaginations of these makers.
The second group of makers is made of those who perhaps start out as tinkerers or hobbyists, but conceive of an idea that they think is worthy of commercializing. This group might also include small groups of people—some who might work in design-related fields in their day jobs—that come together with the specific purpose of creating a new product for commercialization.
Once these promising new products cross the threshold into commercialization, the game changes and these makers require higher-end tools. Diego Tamburini, Manufacturing Industry Strategist at Autodesk, said, “The moment you start selling your product to the public, you have to be much more careful about what you design, you have to simulate it more, because you are immediately liable for your products. As a result, you need more professional-grade tools.”
Tools of the Trade
Let’s take a look at some of the key enabling technologies that are making it possible for this new generation of makers to take their ideas and turn them into real products, and what role these tools are playing in the democratization of design.
There are many significant, life-altering trends being fueled by the Internet. Forums, social networks, email lists, and video publishing sites, such as YouTube, allow these “makers” to form communities and ask questions, collaborate, solicit feedback, and reach out to potential customers. E-commerce distribution services, such as Etsy, and crowdsourcing sites, such as Quirky, are all helping makers commercialize their creations.
Seed capital from crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com, provide the needed economic resources to get projects off the ground. In addition to funding, these sites enable would-be inventors to assess the commercial viability of new products long before they reach the market. “For the makers, crowdfunding is especially important,” said Tamburini. “It not only helps people get funded but provides a very powerful marketing research tool because people are voting with their pledges, so if you get a Kickstarter campaign that is very successful, it’s basically telling you that if you develop this product, you’re going to sell it.”
In addition to the infinite computing and data storage resources offered by cloud computing, the cloud also gives software vendors a way to deliver professional-grade tools at much lower entry price points, putting these tools for the first time into the hands of non-professional users.
While hobbyists certainly aren’t going to be picking up simulation tools and conducting FEA analyses on their products anytime soon, it does open up the possibility for more casual users to experiment with design software.
Several CAD vendors are offering their CAD tools on a monthly subscription basis, ideal for small startups and individuals who might just need them on a short-term basis or those who want to try them out without committing to an annual license.
While design software has enabled products to be conceived and designed in digital form for several decades, bringing those designs into the physical world has presented a serious roadblock for smaller startups and individuals. 3D printing has removed that barrier and enabled these makers to quickly create prototypes of their ideas so they can take that next step towards commercialization.
The costs of the printers and associated materials have dropped significantly in recent years, putting 3D printers within the grasp of nearly every home-based inventor today. Home Depot just recently announced that it would start selling MakerBots at some of its stores in July. Marketed for home use, these 3D printers can be used for fast, inexpensive production of replacement parts, prototypes, art projects, or many other items.
Tom Mueller, design engineer at PDX Effects by day and design hobbyist by night, foresees a future in which 3D home printers are commonplace. “The house of the future has a central computer, but also has a central 3D printer cataloged with all the 3D files that make up the home environment,” said Mueller. “Along with these files, there will be a custom 3D file directory where the members of the house have added purchased or custom-made 3D files. 3D printing is the second most important innovation following the home computer introduction in the 80s. Today anybody, any age, can be an inventor.”
Open-source hardware is electronic or computer hardware built from design information that could be copyrighted or licensed but has instead been made available for public use at no charge. This could include documentation, schematic diagrams, parts lists, and entire project libraries. No longer considered cheating, this information enables people to reuse other’s work as a basis for a new product.
Autodesk’s Tamburini believes that the new mentality brought on by the availability of open-source hardware will foster more creative design. “This new mentality and the ability to use open-source hardware enables a lot of innovation because it’s freeing people from having to develop the same thing over and over and over again,” said Tamburini.
GrabCAD is one of the early pioneers of the Open Engineering movement. The GrabCAD community helps users accelerate design by tapping into the knowledge and resources of the site’s enormous library of free CAD models. One of the GrabCAD community members, Tom Mueller, creates CAD models using Solidworks software, and many of his designs, including the T-Wheel Sportbike, are included in the company’s project library.
“The maker movement has a strong software flavor to it, using online platforms to generate ideas or find help in a way that professionals have historically been reluctant to do,” says Rob Stevens, vice president of Marketing and Business Development at GrabCAD. “The success of these efforts is making companies realize that they need to look at these more ‘open’ platforms, and that there are ways to be ‘open’ without giving up all your intellectual property.”
More flexible design tools
Traditional CAD software that employs a parametric approach to design offers a powerfully automated way to design products, but requires significant expertise to be proficient. New breeds of design software that use a direct modeling approach offer a more intuitive and flexible way to design products. SpaceClaim was the first to introduce direct modeling technology but other vendors, such as Siemens PLM Software and PTC, are now offering direct modelers.
To meet the needs of the expanding pool of designers, PTC has retooled its product portfolio, breaking it up into different apps, based on the level of expertise and task at hand. “PTC Creo offers users a variety of ways to capture their new design ideas,” said Brian Thompson, vice president of PTC Creo Product Management, “whether you prefer hand sketching, building organic, freeform 3D shapes, designing in 2D, or building new designs using direct modeling tools.”
Autodesk is making its Fusion 360 software free for non-commercial use, with the goal of attracting the hobbyist who might eventually become a professional user. The software, available for a monthly subscription price to all other users, also uses direct modeling so it’s flexible and easier to learn and use.
Factory in the Cloud
Also referred to as fabrication services or manufacturing as a service (MaaS), this important enabling technology is still in its infancy but is one to watch in the future because it will provide a much-needed link between design and manufacturing for the maker community.
Just as online sites, such as Shapeways.com, enable people to send their designs to be 3D printed, these services will provide designers with a link to more traditional fabrication services. These services tap a network of reputable manufacturing centers that they have worked with in the past and vetted, sort of an Angie’s List for manufacturing.
“For the entrepreneur or the maker population, they don’t have the knowledge to deal with manufacturing, sourcing, inventory management, supply chain, and all that stuff,” said Tamburini. “It’s overwhelming for them. They just have an idea and they want to be able to mass produce it.”
Looking into the future
With startups and individuals now better able to compete with larger, more traditional manufacturers, thanks to all of these new technologies, the manufacturing game is going to be played by new rules. “The incumbents—or the traditional manufacturers—are going to be impacted,” says Tamburini. “Innovation is no longer an option for them with all these new players popping up left and right. They have to innovate. It’s no longer an option.”
Mueller believes that technologies, such as 3D printing, and open engineering resources, such as GrabCAD, are going to continue to inspire more people to design. “I’m 38 years old and each year that I use 3D, I become more of a visionary, and this is a direct result of the 3D printing advantage,” said Mueller. “The maker community can now actualize ideas using resources like GrabCAD or by learning the skills necessary to 3D model themselves. The traditional means of fabrication using several pieces of machinery and personnel is phasing out as 3D printing quickly gains momentum.”
These new technologies are also evening out the playing field for new companies and startups to compete with larger, more established companies. Groups of very smart people are forming small startups that are appearing out of nowhere and creating truly disruptive products. It is no longer a requirement to be a big established company to find success in the market, as economies of scale have been forever disrupted.
The future calls for companies to design new products and services with the help of the people who will ultimately benefit from them. “If you’re a traditional manufacturer, you have to learn how to play with teams outside of your walls,” said Tamburini. “You have to consider crowdsourcing, involving customers, and involving certain players that might seem transient.”
One of the biggest winners in this new era of democratized design will be the consumer who will benefit from more choices and greater personalization. “For consumers, it’s a win-win. There’s going to be more choices and more personalization because it’s more cost-effective for smaller entrepreneurs to address the long tail of demand,” said Tamburini. “And, consumers can invest and support the products they want by directly supporting the projects in crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.”
Siemens PLM Software