The jury is still out on whether the maker movement could bring about a new American industrial revolution. But anecdotal evidence suggests it’s well on its way to reinventing retail.
Consider the craft maker whose merchandise got so much exposure through a recent Etsy-Nordstrom partnership that she and her husband both quit their day jobs to handle production and sales. Or take the math professor who sent his “rocket cup” design to Shapeways to produce a 3D ceramic tool for teaching students about paraboloids. After cup sales went gangbusters on Shapeways, a Fred & Friends wholesale order put it onto Urban Outfitter’s shelves.
The Etsy seller is just one of more than one million shopkeepers using the e-commerce website to sell handicrafts and vintage goods to 30 million registered users in 200 countries, according to CEO Chad Dickerson. Detroit alone is home to 1,200 Etsy sellers. In New York City, they now outnumber yellow cabs. And worldwide, local Etsy sellers have joined forces in more than 7,000 self-organized groups, Dickerson claims.
Shapeways, meanwhile, enables some 11,000 virtual shop owners to manufacture and sell their own designs by digitally delivering them to the company’s New York City 3D-printing factory and offering them in the Shapeways online marketplace, says co-founder Marleen Vogelaar. The platform enables members “to be entrepreneurs and have a life …producing beautiful, meaningful products” as well as to custom-craft unique, personal items such as wedding rings, she says.
Dickerson and Vogelaar joined Detroit Creative Corridor Center director Matt Clayson and Ford’s open innovation guru Venkatesh Prasad for a “maker movement” discussion moderated by McKinsey & Company principal Lou Rassey at the Techonomy Detroit conference on Tuesday.
“I find it a fascinating time we’re at right now, where tools for innovation have been so rapidly democratized once again,” said Ford’s Prasad. “Somebody can walk into a space, think of something, get on the network, get on the Internet, and get all the tools that you need to be able to shape your idea … to deliver what you have from an idea to a pretty good working prototype.”
In response to those who, as Rassey noted, think the maker movement “is about tinkerers in their garage making things that are meaningful for them but not high‑value, high‑volume that people are going to want,” the panelists said, “think again.”
Three in four Etsy shopkeepers are in business, not just pursuing a hobby, Dickerson said. And Clayson pointed out that creativity and craft don’t necessarily mean “one‑off.” “It is something that can be replicated, can be mass‑produced, but still has these intrinsic valves,” he said. “It tells a story of a person making it, designing it, but it is something that can reach a broad marketplace. And that’s the beauty of what technology is bringing to this movement.”
But are makers collectively powerful enough to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. in a revolutionary way?
The maker movement “is about man taking over the machines again and being empowered,” said Dickerson. Etsy sales are limited to artisanal and vintage goods today, but furniture, for instance, is the site’s fastest growing category. He foresees makers touching more industries in the global marketplace. “We will be increasingly surprised at how what seemed local and small‑scale now will continue to grow,” he said.
The Shapeways platform, Vogelaar said, eliminates “everything that was hard about manufacturing” and saves product designers from hosting Web sites, dealing with customers and vendors, and stocking expensive inventory or ordering 20,000 pieces of the same thing. “They can go to really high‑scale, selling thousands and thousands of parts without creating a sweatshop in their own house,” she said.
Of course, Dickerson noted, “makers don’t have to scale if they don’t want to.”
“With the maker movement,” Vogelaar added, “anybody can be an entrepreneur.” Sure seems revolutionary.