Opinion and Viewpoint

HENDERSON: Why businesses should make Makers

October 12, 2013

HendersonOver beers and dinners, I hear complaints that innovation is dead in the United States, and that most of the “real” innovation comes from southeast Asia, and the university skunk works of Western and Northern Europe.

I believe not only that home-grown innovation is alive and well, but also that the largely U.S. Maker Movement is one of the most ingenious and loose-and-fast hopes for the future of innovation.

The Maker Movement takes lots of individuals from many disciplines and groups and blends their talents for mostly fun, and sometimes profit.

Like the amateur radio groups that still flourish, everyone from junior high students to old-codgers-who-know-better get together and make stuff of their dreams. The where isn’t as important as the variety of what.

Indianapolis had its first Maker Faire two years ago in Fishers, and one was recently held in September in Louisville.

They’re a blast for anyone with a science or engineering itch.

The Maker Faires remind one of a cross between a middle-school science fair held in the gym and something out of a short list for props for a “Mad Max” movie, with everything imaginable in between. Some befit a Purdue University Rube Goldberg contest, while others are more specific and/or simple.

Results start as ideas, sometimes hazy ones. Concepts are put together as circuit board prototypes, or are drawn up in AutoCAD. A welder volunteers. Someone knows of a junkyard with just the right parts. Someone with an artistic flair arrives with an airbrush. Someone hacks in a display from a dead Prius. There’s a dangerous scent of propane from somewhere, then the scent disappears.

The scent of burning plastic takes over from a 3D printer connected to a barely wheezing old Macintosh. A drill press is going in the background. Software engineers are trying to cross-compile code from a Linux machine onto an Arduino controller board that’ll be headed into a robotic drone. A TIG welder is carefully sealing a seam out the back door of a Maker lab—cigar in one hand, torch in the other.

I’ve seen all these things as the various disciplines of mad inventors and Makers and hackers converge to aid one another’s projects. It’s heartening.

Makers are of all ages, genders, races and cut-of-shoe.

One guy pulls up a truck with expensive radio gear. Another has industrial high-temp paint samples. An older server system starts in a Maker lab sounding not unlike a Boeing 757 as its enormous fans cool processors that are doing raster-to-vector renderings.

Science is not only at work, but it’s having a lot of fun in the process. War stories abound. High school students listen in rapt attention as a retired electronics engineer teaches them how to avoid undesired capacitance in their motherboard designs. Printers cough diagrams that are plastered across a wall.

The Maker labs and Maker Faires capture something that’s great about Indiana—and the rest of the country: innovation and the joy of realizing joint efforts. The result might be something that looks pretty silly but functions well.

Some are active art objects. Some were exercises. All of them are budding and real genius at work.

How do businesses and organizations benefit? Sponsorship creates outstanding good will. You can vend and inspire at local Maker Faires. Send the engineers, not the salespeople. Go in jeans and do cool demos.

What’s important is, if you’re swayed by science—get involved. Science fiction becomes reality every day.•

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Henderson is principal researcher of ExtremeLabs Inc., a Bloomington computer analysis firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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