The unintended consequences of the maker movement

Allison Arieff writes, “Yes We Can. But Should We? The unintended consequences of the maker movement

Allison questions if Makers are driving consumerism and if sustainability has been forgotten. She also observes that making stuff yourself can use more energy. Allison also wonders if the things people are making are actually useful or necessary.

Consumerism

Looking at consumerism Allison examines how Quirky are helping budding inventors get their ideas to market quicker.

somewhere in the course of entering the pop culture zeitgeist, the warm and fuzzy self-empowered “maker” idea got turned into an engine for output and profit

The makers who do turn their projects in to products are limited and those who get into mass production are even fewer. As mentioned in “time to grow up makers” a project is not the same as a product. Looking at Maker Pro, only a few of their example professionals actually made something to be consumed. The fact that Quirky relies on a continual flow of new product suggests that it’s the business driving the makers rather than the makers driving the business. This does confirm that this is an unintentional consequence. I’ve even seen that with my own projects. When I showed my Enchanted Cottage to a colleague at work she suggested I could make and sell more, which was never my intention. I suspect it also happens with home bakers and crafters too. Does this mean everyone who creates should stop on the off-chance that someone will try to commercialise their idea?

Sustainability

Has sustainably been forgotten? Absolutely not!

RRR

  • Reduce

Allison cites some fine examples here where people fix their gadgets rather than buying new. The Restart project takes this to the next level and have workshops sharing tools and skills. Another two from the Maker Faire, the Fixers Collective and Scrapkins to whom I gave an old US Nokia power adapter from the time when I was visiting the USA much more. Doubling the life of an item not only halves the amount going to landfill, it halves the raw materials used and halves the transportation used too. In the process of stripping down and rebuilding old things Makers learn about how things are made, what they are made from so appreciate more about the materials. Often makers bring old “broken” products back to life which again saves materials and waste.

  • Reuse

Makers are the kings of reuse. There’s a whole sub genre of “upcycling” who take old things and turn them into something new. I recently criticised one project for taking new but cheap woodsaws and turning them into a shelf. That’s kind of missing the point. Looking at the projects around the Maker Faire nearly all of them had re-used components in them, robots made from aeroplane parts, sculptures from scrap and a crane from lift parts. Most of the makers I know reuse parts from old products, components and projects so are recycling materials even before the get to the municipal recycling centres.

  • Recycle

Again looking at the Maker Faire as a recent example, special “Green Traveller” recruits made sure that all the visitors understood the recycling options for their rubbish ensuring that only the minimum went to landfill. I noticed that most people there didn’t need any prompting to separate up their waste. Most makers will keep their offcuts and spares to use on a different project rather than them becoming waste. Scrap warehouses are run around the UK so that kids can make things from what would otherwise be business waste.

Efficiency

More energy is used 3D printing an item than injection moulding. Suggests Allison. I thought I’d double check that.

Looking at a study from 2006 and taking the “average” for the efficient electrical injection moulding machines they use 87.20MJ/Kg.

There have been a few simple experiments for the same numbers in 3D printing. Jason King measured his Replicator 2 at 0.05 kWh for a 1 hour print of a 100g object, that converts to 180000J/100g or 1.8MJ/Kg which is actually less than injection moulding, not the 100 times more claimed in the article. I’m sure there are other efficiencies of the industrial processes such a labour and transportation but it would appear that energy use is not one of them.

If anyone has any better numbers that these, I’d be interested to know.

Allison also states:

On top of that, the emissions from desktop 3D printers are similar to burning a cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove.

That emotive quote is from “The dark side of 3D printing” which in turn refers to a study from the Illinois Institute of Technology and refers to Ultrafine particles (nanosized particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter) emitted from desktop printers. These particle can cause respiratory problems and printers do typically run for a lot longer than you might cook for. The same article mentions burning scented candles, peeling citrus fruit and not surprisingly vehicles as also being sources of these ultra-fine particles. However, it is important to note that a 3D printer melts plastic, it does not burn anything so there would be other emissions with burning cigarette as well as these ultrafine particles. I would suggest that an industrial environment would need to ensure that their operators are protected as the levels would be a lot higher due to a higher concentration of machines and longer exposure times. That would apply to injection moulding as well as 3D printing of course.

the material of choice for all this new stuff we’re clamoring to make is overwhelmingly plastic.

Yes but the makers favourite plastic is typically PLA which is made from natural products such as corn starch, tapioca roots or sugarcane. It’s got a lower melting point, is easier to use and often performs better than other plastics. In the above study it was also found to have a much lower level of particle emission. Unlike the single use plastic bags it is biodegradable. High-density polyethylene typically used for bags does not biodegrade but can be recycled, waste HDPE material can even be made into 3D printer filament.

But what is it all for?

Do we need all these things we are making asks Allison. Well often the answer is no. But I would say that making is not just about the end result. The journey is often as important, looking at the Robot Resurrection there’s not much question as to if we “need” a 30foot tall flame throwing robot. But in the process of making that the architect of the project Shane Evans involved a team of makers who in turned shared their knowledge and learnt new skills.

Unintended consequences

I think in summary I would say that it’s a mistake to think that making and production are one and the same. Are the consequences of the maker movement something we should concern ourselves with? Yes, I think we should but I would also suggest that makers are better equipped to do that than pure consumers.

I’d like to finish with my own list of unintended consequence of making:

  • Learning new skills
  • Learning about materials
  • Sustainability through re-use and recycling
  • Social interaction
  • Documenting and sharing knowledge
  • Fun

2 thoughts on “The unintended consequences of the maker movement

  1. Richard Sewell says:

    For me, these efficiency questions are frankly a bit silly.

    If I make a spoon, it is not because I want to make the cheapest or most energy-efficient spoon in the world. It’s because I want to make the spoon I have in my head.

    The output – the thing that has to justify the cost and resource consumption of the spoon – is not the soup-eating utility of the spoon, it’s the experience of designing, making, and using that spoon.

    I agree with you, it is very odd to critique the maker movement as if it was primarily about products and marketing.

    It just isn’t.

  2. Thanks for the comment Richard.

    The most energy efficient spoon is probably no spoon, you can eat with your fingers and drink from the bowl or even cooking pot.

    I agree the efficiency arguments are not well thought out, they really only look at a very small part of the picture. Makers are unlikely to scrap a million spoons because they are last years design or move a factory across the globe so that they can save 1% on their costs.

    I spotted a few articles last year about “Makers” which really did not seem to be about the makers I knew. Allison’s was just one of them.

    2015 was definitely the year of lazy journalists, parroting a single number rather than doing a proper investigation. Hopefully we will see some better researched articles in 2016 or I’ll be doing more of these responses.

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