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Why Makers Matter

Were it not for people like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, where would we be today?

If you are an engineer or a designer in the Detroit metro area and haven’t been to one of the four annual Maker Faires that have been sited at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, you have missed something significant.

If you are someone who cares about the future of design, engineering and manufacturing in the U.S. and haven’t been to that event, or one of the others held literally across the country, and around the world (makerfaire.com), then you have missed something massive.

By its own description, it is “Part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new . . . an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors.” The first Maker Faire was held in the Bay Area in 2006.

The Maker Faire held in late July in Dearborn was independently produced by The Henry Ford in collaboration with Maker Media, and sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Fund (you could look west across Oakwood Blvd. and see the Ford Product Development Center), Compuware, and Pure Michigan. Arguably, when you think about what is quintessentially Michigan, there is the auto industry represented by Ford and the tech know-how represented by Compuware, and the support of both of those companies in many ways to maintain the ability to create the world’s most imaginative products. That ability needs to be nurtured, not only in educational facilities, but in events like the Maker Faire.

Where else could you hear a young woman describe how she spent over 100 hours designing and fabricating a metal bed frame, including laser cutting of some of the elements, saying “I’m all about fashion and function?” Or see a couple of guys who have created a real-time 3D scanner about the size of a smart phone? Or avoid getting hit by a whiffle ball launched from a robotic cannon device created by high school students? Or watch people—from kids to seniors—watch with astonishment as small parts were being produced with desktop 3D printing machines? Or need to get out of the way of a Ford Quadricycle, a time machine, or a mobile giant cupcake, including the squiggle on top?

Much is said about reshoring initiatives. That’s all for the good. But this can only happen, can only continue to happen, to the extent that there is the fundamental capability to be productive, which means there needs to be world-leading engineering, development and manufacturing capabilities. Those don’t arrive out of thin air. Those are predicated on real people who have developed their own capabilities in one of a multitude of areas, whether it is figuring out control algorithm for systems or finding ways to produce products in nontraditional manners.

What’s more, it is also about having the imagination and abilities to create something entirely new. Were it not for people like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, where would we be today?

Often, people talk about how they want their kids to go into industry. But the real question is whether those kids actually want to go into industry. They need to be supported and encouraged. What is all the better is if that support and encouragement go toward something that the kids find to be fascinating and engaging, something that they want to do, Mom and Dad notwithstanding.

Somehow I think that someone who is looking up at Gon KiRin, a 69-ft fire-breathing dragon made largely out of old car parts and tires, and then hearing the roar and feeling the heat of the fire, is going to have their imagination stoked in a way that more ordinary creations can’t even touch. (How did they put that together? How come it doesn’t fall apart? How are the shooting flames created? How come they don’t melt the dragon’s head? How . . . ?)

Somehow I think that the teenage boy who was driving a radio-controlled car that he and his pals put together, using an interface on a smart phone to direct it among the passersby, is going to be the future of some automotive electronics endeavor 10 years from now, given the obvious delight that he was having, seeing what he’d done come to fruition.

And that is the beauty of Maker Faire: seeing the smiles borne of accomplishment, of showing what was created, made, by a group of like-minded people, people who have limited resources but unlimited zeal and creativity. 

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