TIME Big Picture

Why the Maker Movement Is Important to America’s Future

I grew up in the age of Tinker Toys and Erector Sets. Both were meant to inspire me to be a maker instead of a consumer.

My first real tool was a wood-burning engraver that had such a short chord it was almost impossible to use. When I started using it, I burned myself more than once and nearly started a fire at the house. How in the world they sold this to kids in those days is now a mystery to me.

I was in Silicon Valley in the late 1970s, and I started to get more interested in the Homebrew Computer Club and similar user groups where people could get together and talk about tech-related interests. This was how I first got interested in computers.

Along the way, the idea of creating technology got sidelined as I instead started to write about it, chronicling its history. This led me to eventually become a computer research analyst instead of an engineer. This was probably a good thing, since I loved to take things apart but had very little interest in putting them back together. And I would have been a lousy programmer or tech designer. But this did allow me to watch the birth of the tech industry close up, witnessing how it developed and has impacted our world over the last 35 years.

Fast forward to today, and I am very excited about the Maker Movement. The more I look into it, the more I believe that it’s very important to America’s future. It has the potential to turn more and more people into makers instead of just consumers, and I know from history that when you give makers the right tools and inspiration, they have the potential to change the world.

So what is the Maker Movement? I found Adweek’s definition to be right on the money:

The maker movement, as we know, is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine, Make, as well as hands-on Maker Faires that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.

Over the weekend, I had a chance to go to the granddaddy of Maker Faire events held at the San Mateo County Event Center about 20 miles south of San Francisco. The folks behind the event call Maker Faire the “greatest show and tell on Earth.” Sponsored by Make magazine, the event this year drew well over 120,000 to check out all that’s new in the world of making things, such as robots, drones and mini motherboards and processors that can be used to create all types of tech-related projects.

As I walked the many show floors and looked at the various exhibits, I found out that the maker movement, which started like the Homebrew Computer Clubs of the past, is made up of makers who can be defined as anyone that makes things. While its roots are tech-related, there were people at the show teaching how to crochet, make jewelry, and even one area called Home Grown, where do-it-yourselfers showed how to pickle vegetables, can fruits and vegetables, as well as make jams and jellies. There was another area focused on eco-sustainability, bee keeping, composting and growing your own food.

There are eight Maker Faire flagship fairs, including the one in San Mateo that’s held in mid-May and one in New York City, which will be held Sept 20-21. Other Maker Faires or Mini-Maker Faires happen all over the world, including major faires planned in Paris, Rome and Trondheim, Norway during 2014. The other U.S. states with major Maker Faires are Kansas City, Detroit and Atlanta. Over 280,000 attended these faires around the world last year.

According to Atmel, a major backer of the Maker movement, there are approximately 135 million U.S. adults who are makers, and the overall market for 3D printing products and various maker services hit $2.2 billion in 2012. That number is expected to reach $6 billion by 2017 and $8.41 billion by 2020. According to USA Today, makers fuel business with some $29 billion poured into the world economy each year. For more feedback on the economics of the Maker Movement, check out Jeremiah Owyang’s “Maker Movement and 3D Printing Industry Stats.”

One of the people who really understands the Maker Movement is Zach Kaplan, the CEO of Inventables, which is an online hardware store for designers in the Maker Movement. I think of his site as a kind of Amazon for Makers.

I met Kaplan at the recent TED conference in Vancouver, where he told me about the history of the Maker Movement and its culture. He pointed out that this movement is quite important, saying, “It has the potential of giving anyone the tools they need to become makers and move them from passive users to active creators.” I caught up with him at last weekend’s Make Faire and he told me that he likened the Maker Movement at the moment to where we were with the Apple II back in 1979. He said that in those days, the computer clubs and tech meetings fueled interest in tech and got thousands interested in software programming, semiconductor design and creating tech-related products. Of course, this begat the PC industry and the tech world we live in today.

The Maker Movement has the potential to bring techies and non-techies alike into the world of being creators — some hobby-related, but for many, they could end up making great products and selling them online. In fact, Kaplan pointed out that Etsy has become an eBay-like vehicle for makers to sell their products to users around the world. Of course, eBay and Craigslist are also sources for them to sell their created wares.

Inventables.com has CNC Mills, laser cutters and 3D printers, and people are using them to create all types of products for themselves or to sell. Interestingly, Kaplan told me that over 80% of his customers are women who pick up the tools and supplies to create all types of jewelry and items that they sell on Etsy. He said the hot thing at the moment is to use tools bought from him to create custom-engraved bracelets and jewelry. In his booth, he had examples of people making custom glass frames, 3D printed coffee carafes and was letting people use a $600 CNC mill called the Shapeoko to create engraved wood and metal bottle openers.

I also asked Kaplan about why this is taking off now. He said, “The key driver is that the cost of the tools such as 3D printers, CNC Mills and things like Arduino and Raspberry PI mother boards and other core tech products have come down and are in reach of normal consumers.” You can also see how things like Make magazine, books, podcasts and YouTube videos for do-it-yourselfers have grown exponentially and are getting more and more people interested in being makers of some sort.

This movement has caught the attention of many major players in the tech and corporate worlds. At the San Mateo Maker Faire were companies like Intel, Nvidia, AMD, AutoDesk, Oracle/Java, Ford, NASA, Atmel, Qualcomm, TI, 3D Robotics and many more that see this movement as important and want to support it. I was able to catch Intel’s CEO Brain Krzanich near his booth and asked him why Intel was at the Maker Faire. He said, “This is where innovation is occurring and Intel has a great interest in helping spur innovation.”

As someone who has seen firsthand what can happen if the right tools, inspiration and opportunity are available to people, I see the Maker Movement and these types of Maker Faires as being important for fostering innovation. The result is that more and more people create products instead of only consuming them, and it’s my view that moving people from being only consumers to creators is critical to America’s future. At the very least, some of these folks will discover life long hobbies, but many of them could eventually use their tools and creativity to start businesses. And it would not surprise me if the next major inventor or tech leader was a product of the Maker Movement.

I do have one concern, though: As I walked the floors of the Maker Faire during the first day of the event, I did not see one African American family in the crowds while I was there, and I only saw two Hispanic families with kids checking things out. I actually dedicated an hour to walking all over the grounds looking for people of minority descent during the time I was at the show. I would say the majority of the families there where white, although I also saw a lot of Asian and Indian families with their kids roaming the faire.

While most of the families I saw had boys with them, there were many young girls at the show, too. In fact, I took my 11-year old granddaughter with me and she loved the Maker Faire. Perhaps there were a lot of African American and Hispanic families there on the second day, although I can’t be sure. The Maker Faire is a great show and is highly inclusive, and the Maker Movement itself wants everyone one to participate. But the lack of folks from these two minority communities tells me that we in the industry and those in the Maker Movement need to figure ways to get these groups of folks interested in being makers, too. Without the participation of everyone, regardless of race, the Maker Movement may not reach its full potential, especially here in America.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

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