Inspiring the maker mentality in the corporate world

The maker movement is inspired by a powerful do-it-yourself drive, combined with innovation, and the sense that anything is possible. Can you imagine how far corporations would go with that drive?

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WSF, Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is a place many of us go sometimes, when it's quiet and we're alone with our thoughts. No, I'm not talking about the darkness that sneaks in when we let ourselves fear the monster under the bed. Instead, I'm talking about a bright light, a momentary glimpse of a future slightly different from what it is now, a future we create using our hands and our imagination... and some spare parts.

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The maker community is filled with people doing exciting things. Many folks enjoy making as a hobby, but making can be incredibly useful in the corporate world as well.

Making can forge new pathways, open up new disciplines, connect you to customers in new ways, identify new opportunities and areas of innovation, and give your company new competitive advantages. Plus, it's cool.

A golden age of makerdom

It's hard to pin down exactly what a "maker" is, but most makers come up with an idea and then set out to make it. Key to that process is the ability for makers to just do it, without needing permission.

We're in a golden age of making for many reasons. It would be impossible to review them all here. Many are empowering, and personal, and dear to people's hearts. This surge in creativity has been facilitated by three practical factors that have emerged in the last couple of decades: access to knowledge, access to resources, and new methods of production. Let's talk about each, in turn.

Access to knowledge

Creativity, innovation, problem solving and transformation are no longer limited to certain guilds and certain professions. Anyone can have an interesting idea and set out to make it happen.

Historically, there has often been a battle between those who had knowledge of certain techniques and processes, and those who wanted to get stuff done. Secrecy was considered a competitive advantage. Some of that changed as people moved out of closed cities, encampments, and communities, particularly in the early United States.

Settlers moving West were on their own. They had to build their homes, solve whatever problems came their way, and innovate -- or die. While there were guilds that protected and sequestered knowledge from the masses, many individuals lived far away from any infrastructure. These people, often without formal training, found themselves innovating out of necessity.

Today, the opportunity to innovate is better than ever before. Knowledge that may have been impossible to find is now available instantly, in YouTube videos and articles posted online. If you want to learn something, almost anything, you can find what you want to know. The knowledge is usually just a few clicks (and an ad pre-roll) away.

Access to resources

Today, tools and parts can be bought from all over the world, without restriction. This is actually a bigger driver of the maker movement than you may think. I'll illustrate this through a short story.

When I was a young man, I worked in New York City for a summer creating a custom application for one of my very first clients.

One day, when I was working in a cramped office in midtown Manhattan, my client told me about his business model. His unique value was that he had amassed printed catalogs that others in his industry had not. As such, he could order stuff from those catalogs and resell them to colleagues at a usurious markup.

My client guarded the names of his suppliers like someone would guard a stack of gold bullion. Essentially, his only competitive advantage was that he was on certain mailing lists.

Back then, suppliers often wouldn't sell to consumers. They relied on distributors like my client to protect the sanctity of the distribution channel. They wouldn't accept an order unless you could prove you were worthy, either by the amount you were willing to spend, or your affiliation with a particular profession or industry. It would have been considered disloyal to their distributors to sell direct to consumers.

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This lock-down of resources, supplies, and parts made it very hard for regular folks to innovate. Some people worked around the blockades, but it was a significant barrier to creativity. Back in those days, if you wanted product information, you often had to request a brochure be mailed to you. Can you imagine?

That, of course, isn't a problem today. We have Amazon, Google, AliExpress, eBay, and all the rest. We have overnight shipping, and the ability to download information. We have the Web. We have access to tools, parts, materials that fuel amazing creativity.

Methods of production

Desktop fabrication devices like 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, and engravers, combined with low-cost computing control devices like Arduino boards and Raspberry Pis, provide production tools and speed of turnaround we never had before.

One reason I've been so fascinated by 3D printing, and have been sharing the 3D Printing Discovery Series with you, is because, for the first time in my life, I've been able to build things. I'm a software guy, and I'm great with code. But I've never been trained in fabrication. Yet, over the past year or so, using 3D printers and some simple CAD software, I've built a wide range of helpful objects that I never could have produced before.

The image below shows two examples of useful items I've built with a CAD program and a 3D printer. The item on the left is a bracket that holds a Thunderbolt dock onto a lighting tower in my studio. It's a convenient way to get it up and accessible. From desire to final unit was probably about four hours, with most of the time spent printing the part.

Take a look at the red plastic part on the right. That is a tool I designed that integrates a drill press with a heating element, both off-the-shelf parts, to provide a hot plastic press. Normally a press like that is thousands of dollars. All told, including the drill press, I spent under $100.

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Image: David Gewirtz

Making in the corporate world

Those of you who have experience in manufacturing probably understand the concept of jigs and fixtures. These are special-purpose tools used to properly align objects for production. They're often one-off creations, and can take a long time to build.

Recently, 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker released a video describing how a Volkswagon manufacturing plant had used 3D printers to improve productivity by speeding up the jig and fixture creation process. By using 3D printers, they're able to save 90 percent of the time it used to take to create these tools, and about 90 percent of the cost as well. For my first looks at the Ultimaker, read this and this.

What I love about making and the maker movement is the idea that almost anything is possible. In the corporate world, this attitude can lead to amazing innovations. By unleashing the creativity of employees, even just to solve simple problems like I did in my studio and shop, teams can start to work across disciplines, see new opportunities, and engage in activities they might not otherwise ever try.

Since I started working with 3D printers, for example, I've learned a lot about plastics, a field I never knew much about. I've learned about fabrication, 3D design, and how to think about creating solutions. Imagine how this multidisciplinary, explorational, aspirational set of activities can drive teamwork, help employees learn beyond their core skills, and then bring those ideas and techniques back into their workaday life.

We've all heard the phrase "think outside the box." Makers make the box, then fill the box, and then make the box do amazing things. Who knows? That box may open the door to incredible new products, opportunities, and innovations for your company.

If you have an employee or teammate who seems to have a sense of curiosity, or a drive to make things, encourage it. Heck, buy a 3D printer and bring one in house. Inexpensive, yet powerful 3D printers are available for under $1,000. See what happens.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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