Understanding the Maker Subculture

August 12, 2011

The following was written by one of our CAD Engineers, Mark Eyman, about his interest in the “maker subculture”.

“The maker subculture is a contemporary subculture, representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker subculture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts.” – Wikipedia

I’ve been interested in this DIY movement for a while – what is interesting to me is that it encourages people of all levels of ability to try and make their own things. Many times our work leads us to prototyping products that will one day be mass-produced; this prototyping process is similar in a lot of ways to what hobbyist Makers do – create a functioning, unique one-off product. Our tools are increasingly being made available to the masses through social-network oriented sites like Sparkfun or Shapeways. Sometime these creations lead to mass production success through funding sites like Kickstarter.

The social part of this movement is not only in the websites which provide these services, but also in the Hackerspaces makers meet at to create and share resources, expertise and information. There are two listed in the Chicago area, Pumping Station: One and Workshop 88. Below I talk about how these organizations and providers are trying to bring down the mental and financial hurdles of creating new products to the individual and making the process exciting to more people.

Make my Own Electronics?
Since I was a kid, I was interested in electronics—I’d buy the Radio Shack instruction books and try to figure out its resistors, capacitors, and LED’s. In college, I tried my hand at soldering electrical components and solar cells for our university solar car team, and also took an Electrical Engineering class. With all of this, it still doesn’t seem all that approachable. At Beyond Design, we partner with firms who specialize in creating custom circuit boards, and design the components so that they fit our specific application with mass production in mind. What if I want to try my hand at putting together my own multi-meter or Simon Says game? Impossible? Nope. There are now sites, product kits, and communities of Makers with expertise in all things electrical which I can tap into. A few that I especially like are talked about in more detail below.

Sparkfun Electronics is a website dedicated to creating components and kits as well as a support community to help Makers customize electronics of all sorts for their DIY projects. Recently, they developed a line of pre-soldered circuit boards called ProtoSnap – these boards let you skip to the part where you program a chip with your computer to have some sort of output – even most common outputs are attached.

Don’t want this or that attached part, just snap it off! They also have a version for their LillyPad line of electronics which are intended for use in textile applications (conductive buttons on your sleeve or an LED flashing hat for example).

Another group called bildr is trying to make the circuits more understandable. Their sites combine simplified explanations of DIY projects along with nicely designed diagrams to help you visualize the circuits.

Recognizing an opportunity to tap into this culture, Microsoft has even developed its own DIY system called .net gadgeteer which uses their .NET Micro Framework. They call this the FEZ Spider Starter Kit, and one project showcased by their site is the mini-arcade shown below.

This shows an integration of DIY electronics with DIY laser-cutting. Check out more about physical prototype techniques in an upcoming post, 3D printing and Laser Cutting for the Masses.

*Note: Photos are from SmarkFun Electronics, bildr, and Designboom.

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