The Definition of a Maker

I recently came across the movie about Tim Jenison's efforts to quantifiably demonstrate a theory he has about how Vermeer might have painted his paintings:

Tim represents to me the ultimate expression of a Maker, not because of the theory itself, but rather by how he goes about testing it.  As with any true Maker,  he methodically breaks down the steps to accomplish the goal and then begins attacking them one by one irrespective of the skills, tools and engineering challenges needed to accomplish them. The steps he goes through to prove his theory, which include CNC machining an exact replica of the room in the painting, learning Dutch, hand grinding optics, and sitting for 100's of hours painting "dots" (among others) are mesmerizing.  And at no point in the process does he allow his knowledge (or lack thereof) in any way inhibit finding the answer.

A key element of this Maker mentality is an inherent confidence in one's ability to learn whatever skills are necessary for a task.  


In my experience, most engineers (and people in general) are very much limited by what they know.  They fool themselves into thinking this is OK because they can successfully apply this fixed knowledge to a narrow problem domain area and appear "smart" to their peers.  This worked OK in the era where technology fields were more isolated from each other and most people worked for large, stable companies their entire lives.   But now that people have to constantly adapt to ever-changing work environments and problems, this solution is no longer sufficient.  Moreover this approach to knowledge makes people very brittle. Once the conditions vary more than X% from their trained-in structure their applied intelligence (vs. perceived intelligence) drops off precipitously.  

I contend that we are moving towards a society of individual or micro-team accomplishment rather than larger groups.  It is now possible for a very small team, or even an individual person, to design, develop, implement and even produce very complex products all on their own.  Through a combination of powerful tools (Parametric CAD, CNC, 3D Printers, and others) and almost unlimited knowledge (i.e. the Internet) there is absolutely no limit to what a single individual can accomplish with enough perseverance and determination.  Moreover, the huge efficiency advantages of very small groups tackling larger and larger problems give these micro-teams a fundamental advantage over traditional organizational structures.  Larger teams waste too much time managing the group itself rather than actually solving the problem.  That, combined with the virtual sales and distribution efficiencies of the Internet and new micro-investment mechanisms (e.g. Kickstarters) will fundamentally change the structure of most companies and engineering efforts going forward.

The key to accomplishing this, I believe, focuses on individuals building up the facility to learn a broad range of fabrication and design techniques, incorporating advanced CAD/CAM software tools as an integral part of the design process, and developing strong diagnostic skills to adjust designs on-the-fly based upon quantifiable measured results.  People must constantly challenge themselves to learn new things, in a broad range of fields, and refine and improve their existing methodologies. Thus the status quo should be defined by constant change, and your background, education and existing skills should in no way limit or define what you can accomplish.  This approach not only produces better, more adaptable engineers, it also results in products and systems that are much more optimally and efficiently designed.  A smaller group of broader engineers can produce better results than a larger group of narrow engineer because they are better able to adapt the design on-the-fly to any problems encountered.

By focusing on the people (Makers) instead of the process (factories), we return to the fundamental strength of a Manufacturing-driven economy but without being mired in the large, slow, plodding centralized model that epitomized previous industrial revolutions. A Maker-based model provides us with a strong, flexible workforce, capable of rapidly adapting to changing conditions, able to produce more effective products, at a more competitive price point, and less dependent on "others" for their success.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? 

Posted on July 7, 2014 .