It started as a movement grounded in the rebellious “Do It Yourself” culture of punk rock music and libertarianism, and flowed to independent-minded engineers dismayed with “Made in China” mass-produced merchandise.
Now lawmakers on Capitol Hill — from across the political spectrum — have gotten in on the action.
The bipartisan Congressional Maker Caucus, a group of 25 representatives, is determined to educate colleagues about maker technology with the belief that it one day could help America declare independence from Chinese-made generic goods.
The “Maker Movement,” a marriage of traditional craftsmanship techniques with the latest in modern designs and production technologies, promises an economy based on financial independence by manufacturing almost anything the market wants through a hybrid of electronics, robotics, metalworking, woodworking, 3-D printing and traditional arts and crafts.
“To me, it has huge implications for medicine, energy, aerospace and the military. I think it could have a huge impact to empower people to be more self-sufficient and reduce overhead for themselves, and if we invest in this it could transform all sectors of our economy,” Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat and co-chairman of the fledgling Congressional Maker Caucus, told The Washington Times, “If an engine breaks or a component part breaks, you don’t have to buy 10 or 1,000 [replacement parts] to place an order; you can just make one on the spot because you have the 3-D printer and the materials.”
Sales of 3-D printers are expected to double to 217,000 this year. The Defense Department already is testing how they can help soldiers in the field by “printing” food, medicine and weapons. They are even exploring the ideas of printing antennas and warheads.
Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who also co-chairs the Maker Caucus, keeps a 3-D printer in his Washington office.
“We use it to help educate other congressional staff members about the technology and promote membership in the caucus,” he said. “I’ve met with someone at the Department of Education’s Technological Education Section, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services to get this into the schools. They have grants to make this technology available in libraries and museums, which help teach how technology intersects with design.”
What started as a spontaneous movement in suburban garages has matured into nationwide “maker fairs” and “makerspaces” — physical locations and online sites, respectively, where investors and artisans can exchange ideas and display their creations for investors.
Three years ago, the Maker Faire Bay Area 2012 attracted more than 120,000 people. Now schools nationwide are starting to use makerspaces for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.
Steven M. Greenberg, a South Florida intellectual property lawyer who specializes in emerging computing technologies, is on the front lines supporting the congressional caucus’ mission of implementing makerspace technology in schools.
He is helping develop a makerspace at Pine Crest, a private school, in Boca Raton. Pine Crest is building its own “iLabs” project — an interdisciplinary center for students in pre-K through 12th grade, that uses 3-D printing to spur design and invention.
“The makerspace for STEM is a sleeping giant,” Mr. Greenberg said in an interview. “There are only a handful of mobile applications available at the moment, but portable, usable 3-D design applications for the makerspace are the inevitable future of STEM education. Instead of just teaching kids about science and engineering in theory, they can actually invent objects on site and produce the actual prototype of the invention using 3-D printing technology.
“Just five years ago, rapid prototyping was a technology reserved for only the best-funded engineering departments of corporate America. Bringing rapid prototyping to early education is the missing link in our education system in order to recapture our country’s lead in the world.”
Rep. Steve Stivers, Ohio Republican and co-chairman of the Maker Caucus, said “making” is the next logical step in what he calls an “on-demand” economy, but he also recognizes the challenges and potential pitfalls that come with it.
National media shined a spotlight on 3-D printing last year after it was proved that the technology could be used to produce unregistered firearms, a notion that has raised concerns within the Obama administration. A notice posted June 3 in the Federal Register indicates that changes are in effect under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations to ban online blueprints for the Liberator 3-D printed gun.
“You could make a gun out of plastic, but then you’d need a firing pin with metal, so there are always potential issues that we need to look at with innovation, and it’s important to understand the potential pitfalls and watch out for those pitfalls,” Mr. Stivers said. “But I don’t want to stop innovation just because it could be used for evil.”
He said a U.S. economy driven by the maker culture and rooted in 3-D printing is inevitable.
“We’re all used to on-demand products for music and downloads, but now you’re going to be able to do the same thing with tangible goods instead of just intellectual property,” he said. “You’ll be able to make things right there that are available on demand. I think it will have a massive impact.”
Mr. Ryan said the maker economy faces a bright future because “making” is entrenched the mindset of the rising millennial generation.
“It’s going to be quite a road from here to there, but it is not as far as people think,” he said.
“If you look at where the millennials are going, they don’t want anything anyone else has,” he said. “They want their own phone case that no one else has and their own shoes, and that’s where the economic power comes in. People are going to figure out that you can empower young people to design anything they want.”