A new tribe is forming, one that could disrupt the old way of doing things by taming chaos.
Chaos is a powerful force, something that isn’t always fully appreciated. In most walks of life chaos is something to avoid, but under the right circumstances, it delivers results.
Take toll roads, for example. In most cases, there are more tollbooths than lanes, which aids with the flow of traffic and reduces congestion on one side but results in more vehicles than lanes on the other. But instead of this leading to collisions every few seconds, drivers somehow manage to embrace this chaos and get on their way without incident.
Choreographing that kind of traffic control using traditional methods would be impractical, it relies instead on the awareness of drivers, their understanding of how vehicles move and an appreciation for their own actions. Chaos tamed.
The Maker Movement might be observed by some as chaotic because it has little respect for ‘the right way’ of doing things and, instead, does things its own way.
Makers do not fit a common profile; they come from all walks of life and with vastly different skillsets. The one thing they do have in common is a desire to create something that didn’t exist before, or perhaps just their own version of something that does exist.
Where they perhaps differ is that in the eyes of the conventional engineer, that thing, whatever it is, would probably need to be better in some way; the maker may be happy with just different.
Technology makers are people that use single-board computers (SBCs), modules and other electromechanical products to build something. They are the latest in a long line of can-do people.
DIYers can be described as a tribe of makers, as can home bakers. Anyone who creates something from a basic palette of materials can legitimately call him or herself a maker, as evidenced by the huge range of crafts and skills on show at the recent UK Maker Faire.
When all you have in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but when you have an SBC, you have an almost infinite number of tools at your disposal: this is what is so appealing to technology makers.
If you are a home baker there are only so many ways you can combine ingredients, but if you are a technology maker you are limited only by your imagination, or in the case of the Maker Movement, the imagination of others willing to share their ideas.
At an inflection point, a maker may become something more; meaning it could be time to start conforming. While this might involve meeting preconceived expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable, the area between these two extremes is grey.
The term “pro maker” is not established and certainly not as commonplace as “prosumer”. The latter denotes someone who consumes professional-grade products for nonprofessional reasons (such as an enthusiastic but amateur photographer).
A pro maker would arguably be someone who operates in the reverse fashion: taking maker products (such as SBCs) and applying them to a ‘professional’ purpose.
There is a history of using consumer off-the-shelf components in applications beyond traditional consumer products, and perhaps the same is happening in the realms of the technology maker.
Increased access to platforms that combine high performance and low cost with preconfigured functionality is enabling makers. It means a maker can take an off-the-shelf device and give it a specific function within a very short timeframe.
In an engineering environment, the pro maker wouldn’t be subject to the usual design cycle or peer review process. The result would be a ‘tool’ with a single purpose, and when that purpose no longer exists it can be repurposed just as quickly and easily. It could, for example, be a piece of test equipment designed to stress test an electromechanical latch, or a device to monitor the footfall in a particular area of a factory.
An abundance of sensors that can easily extend the functionality of a standard SBC, often accompanied by code examples, means that complex systems can be constructed with barely any deep design effort.
The value of such a system, even if its lifetime is limited to hours, could be huge. This approach is gaining momentum in traditional areas of engineering.
The process of taking something, ideally of low cost, and adding value to it underpins entire economies, but these same dynamics do not necessarily apply in the Maker Movement.
Traditional economics dictate that the available market for an end product needs to be high enough to justify the expense and that while the margin is higher than the cost, manufacturing should continue; the so-called law of diminishing returns. This model doesn’t reliably factor in the value to an individual end user; rather, it approximates the total value to the available market.
If you are a maker then the end market is effectively one, so arguably the cost is largely irrelevant, particularly if the value is disproportionately high. These dynamics are uniquely attractive in a manufacturing environment, where the value of a solution to a problem can be amortised across the volume of products relying on that solution.
When a production line develops a fault, a maintenance team may be able to repair it: if not the manufacturer may need to attend. If it repeatedly fails because of a recurring fault, the engineer on hand may devise a solution; today they may even be able to implement that solution, using tools more commonly associated with technology makers.
Fundamental to this shift in perception within engineering is the quality of the tools: the SBCs and modules, the sensors and actuators, and the design environments. Their quality is arguably indistinguishable from other products designed exclusively for the industrial market and when there is a need for a higher quality device it will almost certainly be relatively easy to integrate into the system. This is where the real grey areas exist between maker and engineer, and where the pro maker will prosper.
Engineers have a thirst for knowledge and a mind for problem solving: when the two come together they excel. Makers have an appetite for solutions and a desire to be creative which, when combined, can have similar results. This is impacting the way manufacturers view makers but perhaps more significantly, it is influencing the way engineers now approach engineering.
Kelvin Tse is DesignSpark APAC Technical Manager at RS Components. DesignSpark provides free software and a community-led website packed full of projects, articles and the latest products. Visit www.designspark.com