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The Maker Movement Is Going Mainstream -- What Happens Next?

The next generation can have a real shot -- while still young -- of reinventing the products the rest of us take for granted.

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Do you remember the first thing you ever made?

For me, it was a fake Game Boy — the big, blocky, gray one. I drew its screen, and stuck on Smarties for the buttons.

Back then, the real 4.19 megahertz brick-breaker was precision-manufactured in Japan, and sold for $89.

Today, kids as young as 6 can build their own computers, displays, speakers and servers for about the same price — but 859x faster. Their parents can buy a $100 3-D printer. A $65 drone. A $5 brain.

In just under a decade, changes in China, corporate interest in preparing the “next billion” workforce and a cultural shift in how we compute (small-serving) has taken “making” mainstream. But mostly as a meme. As Make author and editor Alasdair Allan puts it, makers are in a “trough of disillusionment.” It should be “about more than electronics,” he says, “it’s supposed to be a cultural movement.”

How can we get there?

New hardware is spilling from the hands of a generation of young Chinese. The common refrain is that they build electronics in Shenzhen like American teens build websites in Palo Alto.

In a world where East and West are bringing hardware and software together at lower costs than anyone imagined, and with quicker routes (open source) to real product, the opportunities are spellbinding — especially for beginner makers. The next generation can have a real shot — while still young — at reinventing the products the rest of us take for granted.

First, let’s look at what we have to play with. Mobile computing has tipped a low-cost box of “Lego brick” components into the Chinese supply chain. More formal relationships, better working conditions and automation are bringing these into homebrew hands faster, and at higher quality.

The proliferation of cheap components is what Mike Callow, who runs manufacturing at Kano, called “economically tough for suppliers,” but great for the little guy (say, a small consumer product studio in East London). “The investment in automation has been driven mainly by labor shortages” in Southern China, he says.

Mobile has driven the kind of miniaturization that can take a hack out of the garage and into the mass market. “There’s been a silicon reduction of wafer thicknesses, 130 nanometers to 75,” says Callow. “Combined with high yields and increased processor speed, it’s enabled the inclusion of multiple technologies onto one chip.”

It used to go the other way. As a grad student, Luke Abrams (Kano’s product chief) hacked together one of the world’s most affordable oscilloscopes. A Chinese textbook manufacturer caught wind, decided to bundle the tech, and now there are millions across Asia.

New hardware is spilling from the hands of a generation of young Chinese. The common refrain is that they build electronics in Shenzhen like American teens build websites in Palo Alto.

There’s no doubt that the tools are there. More hacker-to-household projects will cross the crowdfund Rubicon. Just last week, we announced that Kano is among the first to offer the much-awaited Raspberry Pi 3 inside of our computer kits, expanding the powerful projects available to makers everywhere.

Of course, in 2015, “making” went a bit corporate. Both Shell and Google adopted “Make the Future” slogans, Converse’s “Made by You” campaign won a heap of trophies, and the schedules, diets and fashion senses of “creative people” bedecked many an SME brochure. In London, the creative industries now out-employ the financial services sector.

It would serve companies like Shell, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft well to invest not just in their developer communities, but in educating “beginner makers.”

It would serve companies like Shell, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft well to invest not just in their developer communities, but in educating “beginner makers,” not just for the school district’s sake, but to enliven young minds outside the classroom to the potential that comes with taking apart their products — not just buying them.

A closed product design mentality stands in the way and is still in vogue — it’s all about “invisible,” “quick wins,” “fixing pain points.” It prioritizes the end game, in a world where the computing journey itself can be the reward.

Imagine a Facebook News Feed you could code yourself. A Microsoft Surface Book that came in pieces. A Shell Oil chemistry kit, with a gorgeous storybook. A GE box of lights that any 7-year-old can use to understand the principles of electromagnetism, or to fast-code an LED bulb above their heads.

Making will go mainstream, and not just as a buzzword. But it will take a commitment from our industry to open standards, lower costs and, perhaps most of all, a narrative that mixes the arts and sciences. Stories matter, and when coupled with silicon, become more than products — they make movements.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXDVw0laGlI&feature=youtu.be


Alex Klein is co-founder and CEO of Kano, leading the company’s product and story from ideation in its record-breaking Kickstarter to the design and development of its award-winning computer kit. He was inspired by a challenge from his 6-year-old cousin Micah to create a computer he could build himself, “as simple and fun as Lego.” Klein was chosen as an emerging thinker shaping Britain’s future by CNN, named a “change agent” by USA Today and featured as Forbes’ standout “30 Under 30” in 2014 and 2015. Reach him @alexnklein.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.