Maker Culture: From Renaissance Workshops to FabLab

Guest Editors’ Introduction • Claudio Demartini, Edoardo Calia, and Marco Mezzalama • August 2015

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Translations by Osvaldo Perez and Tiejun Huang


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Radical Next-Gen Computing

During the Renaissance era, workshops included a headmaster together with apprentices, wageworkers, assistants, teachers, and guests. They created a broad range of commissioned products ranging from great cycles of frescoes and majestic altarpieces to small, ordinary objects. These workshops often featured multiple threads based on precise divisions of labor to ensure optimal work efficiency.

Apprenticeships ran from four to nine years during which the apprentices (who typically ranged in age from 14 to 25 and worked solely for room and board) engaged in preparing colors and media for painting, as well as practicing drawing, copying mainly from the so-called “pattern books” that circulated among art workshops. Once apprentices had learned the techniques, they could become workers and then assistants, undertaking progressively more complex tasks until they earned the responsibility of developing entire parts of a work. The best workers could eventually inherit workshops — as Lorenzo di Credi did under Verrocchio, for example — or they could open their own, as Perugino did. A master would plan the work for the entire unit, controlling the quality of the results and focusing on the main components, such as the central items of an altarpiece, figures of saints, faces, and so on.

Modern FabLabs (fabrication laboratories) nurture the same sort of passion as Renaissance workshops by gathering motivated people from a global network of local labs, in which creativity, passion, and invention are encouraged through access to various tools for digital fabrication. They provide environments that share a dynamic inventory of core competencies to let people work together on complex projects to make almost anything. Davide Gomba, head of the Torino FabLab, explains that the FabLab network “is available as a community resource, offering open access to individuals but also supporting scheduled access to more complex organizations.”

Designs and processes developed in such environments can be protected and sold by the inventors, although they also remain available for individuals to use and learn from. Education, which is often based on autonomous self-organized patterns, is one of the ecosystem’s key features. FabLabs can also host commercial activities, which can be prototyped and incubated without conflicting with other uses. Such activities can eventually grow beyond the FabLab borders, thus benefiting the inventors, the lab, and the entire network that contributed to enable their success.

Those key features and activities enrich the local and global community of volunteers who gravitate toward the lab, sharing knowledge and the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos. Together, these features have created a successful, dynamic, and evolving ecosystem, despite limited and uncertain financial support and the lack of assessed and recognized business models.

A New Rising Profile: The Maker

Who are the makers? In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (Crown Business, 2014), Chris Anderson states that craftspeople, tinkerers, hobbyists, and inventors can all be considered makers. In other words, a maker profile derives its identity and meaning from the act of creating a service or product, whatever it might be. What distinguishes modern makers from the inventors and DIY-ers of other time periods is the incredible power of modern technologies and the global economy’s means of production and distribution through new connection paradigms and learning scenarios. What’s really new is how technology and globalization, blended with cultural shifts such as the establishment of an open innovation environment, are enabling and motivating individuals to get involved in “making” activities while removing barriers along the value chain and integrating the whole spectrum of competencies from design and prototyping down to manufacturing, sales, distribution, and deployment.

Makers are organized as a large online community, which has adopted the fundamental principles of openness and collaboration for all projects and activities. Indeed, collaboration is so important that MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld defines makers more as passionate about “doing it together” (DIT) than about doing it yourself.

Network access to shared resources, training sessions, and the community itself — not to mention technology-based tools that are less expensive and easier to use than ever before — help overcome obstacles to creation and production. Individual makers can easily interact with a broader audience including other makers, suppliers, customers, contributors, and funding organizations because the same solutions applied to democratize information, such as the improved cost-performance derived from digitization and seamless connectivity, are also lowering the production costs of physical objects and services.

In fact, new technologies impacting effectiveness and the pace of communication, together with enhanced use scenarios, have made it relatively easy to create or modify nearly any product or service while reducing investments in infrastructure, equipment, and technical training. This has greatly increased the amount of people that can turn ideas into solutions, which they can demonstrate with tangible prototypes ready for showcasing to potential customers. Strengthening the effectiveness of prototyping, open source hardware has unlocked the gate to newcomers by weakening larger competitors’ proprietary rights. When design and technical specifications are available online, any developer can access and modify existing hardware by taking advantage of rapid prototyping to carry out small-scale production at an unprecedented pace.

In This Issue

For this month’s Computing Now theme, “The World of Making” is the appropriate starting point to shape the context. This well-structured collection of 14 essays (and even a poem) from the December 2014 issue of Computer presents perspectives from various actors in the world of making. All of the authors agree about the relevance of making, and each explains the rationale behind that belief by focusing on their personal stories and describing how making has influenced their lives.

Irena Bojanova’s "The Digital Revolution: What's on the Horizon?" talks about the importance of shaping the future. Bojanova argues that the digital revolution will spread through the mass adoption of 3D printing, which provides a more accessible way for developing digital models to produce physical goods. She foresees that 3D bio-printing will also affect society and people’s lives — not least, offering diverse business opportunities.

David Mellis stresses the need for more detailed analysis of processes and technologies applied in the making domain. In “Do-It-Yourself Fabrication of Electronic Devices,” he examines how the continuing evolution and increasing accessibility of digital fabrication and embedded computation presents many new technological opportunities. For example, human-computer interface researchers are now exploring new mechanisms and solutions to integrate interfaces and electronics with digitally fabricated parts, such as integrating optical functionality into 3D-printed objects or leveraging vinyl cutting or copper printing to create touch-sensitive electrodes.

In “Design to Fabricate: Maker Hardware Requires Maker Software,” Ryan Schmidt and Matt Ratto discuss the active, exciting space that is digital fabrication and how it presents interesting new problems whose solutions can heavily impact industry and society. As the price for entry-level 3D printers drops, the real question becomes what people intend to do with them. To that end, the authors propose a system that can guide hobbyists and professionals alike through creating designs that are suitable for direct fabrication.

An interesting application of the making scenario emerges in Bertrand Schneider, Jenelle Wallace, and Paulo Blikstein’s “Preparing for Future Learning with a Tangible User Interface: The Case of Neuroscience.” The article explores how learning by manipulating digitally augmented physical objects impacts the foundations of students’ knowledge in neuroscience. In particular, they present Brain-Explorer, a learning environment that’s organized according to a modular architecture that lets users develop additional learning scenarios using free tools such as open source programming languages.

Industry Perspectives

Industry Perspective Video
Edoardo Calia on how enterprises can play a relevant role with respect to education.

 

In the first video, Edoardo Calia, deputy director for strategic programs at ISMB, stresses the main issues that arise from interactions between FabLabs, schools, and small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) to illustrate how enterprises can play a relevant role with respect to education when it is carried out according to the dual system perspective, an educational system that combines apprenticeship in a company and education at a vocational school in a single course. Locating digital fabrication labs at the center of the scene and directly linked to SMEs and schools makes FabLabs a key player in a new educational paradigm deeply rooted in problem-based learning.

Industry Perspective Video
Kids looking for fun while learning in the FabLab.

 

In "Learning Having Fun," kids are the actors — and often looking for fun while learning in the FabLab. Games and imagination prove to be strong drivers to increase motivation while also indirectly improving the kids’ attention to learning. While trying to assemble and disassemble objects, they experience a natural mechanism at the base of instinctive learning sustained by emotions built around passion implicitly perceived when discovering while creating.

Industry Perspective Video
Giovanni Bindi reports on experiences shaping emerging competence profiles.

 

Finally, in "FabLab: Not Only for Tech Specialists," Giovanni Bindi, a user and partner at FabLab Torino, reports on experiences shaping emerging competence profiles, in which a multidisciplinary imprinting prevails, founded on blended cultural instances — often bringing people from different backgrounds together into complementary teams. Technology becomes a commodity to help teams collaborate and shape a common idea to be transformed into a product or service. Bindi, who is not a technology specialist, found at the FabLab the competence and support he needed to design and create smart objects adopting the paradigm typical of his area of interest, physical computing.

In Conclusion

Maker fairs provide opportunities for sharing and testing ideas, products, and techniques. Riccardo Luna, past editor in chief of Wired-Italia and currently digital champion for the Digital Agenda Europe, says “more than 131 fairs were organized in 2014 alone, reaching over 1.5 million attendees counted since the first event rolled out in San Mateo, California in 2006, without mentioning that the 9th annual Maker Faire Bay Area welcomed at least 1,100 makers and 130,000 attendees, and the World Maker Faire in New York, another flagship event, has grown in four years to more than 600 makers and 75,000 attendees.”

Other events have taken place in Singapore, Taipei, Shenzhen, Rome, Paris, Hannover, Berlin, Trondheim, Oslo, England, Tokyo, and across the US. Each fair features 3D printers, microcontrollers, drones, and DIY/DIT electronics (such as littleBits) in thousands of different applications. As these applications grow smaller and less expensive, additive manufacturing, 3D printing, and machining (such as computer numerical control [CNC] milling and routing) have moved from industrial plants to the desktop. Programmable microcontrollers such as the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Intel’s Galileo, and Edison controllers, among others, are easy to program, can handle connected devices, and are now entering schools and university labs to speed the development process from concept to prototype delivery.

Often combined with the cloud, these devices are contributing to the creation of the Internet of Things, and the cloud itself is becoming a tool supporting the maker movement, enabling collaboration, digital workflow, and distributed manufacturing through the transfer of files that can immediately be transformed into objects via digitized manufacturing processes. In this scenario, the open source movement, which initially focused only on software, has now moved to hardware as well, leveraging easy access to online designs and simplified licensing agreements. In fact, Arduino is usually recognized as the first open source hardware project that allowed anyone to replicate the device itself, with the only constraint that any interested user would be willing to obtain a license to use the Arduino name. ‬‬‬‬Clearly, the stage is set for the maker movement to usher in potentially radical changes in manufacturing. We hope the articles in this month’s theme present a compelling overview of this exciting field.

Citation

C. Demartini, E. Calia, and M. Mezzalama, “Maker Culture: From Renaissance Workshops to FabLab,” Computing Now, vol. 8, no. 8, August 2015, IEEE Computer Society [online]; http://www.computer.org/web/computingnow/archive/maker-culture-from-renaissance-workshops-to-fablab-august-2015.

Guest Editors

Claudio Demartini is a professor of computer engineering at Politecnico di Torino. His research interests include distributed systems, computer networks, communication protocols, field bus networks, formal description techniques, software engineering, product life cycle, and innovation management. Demartini has a PhD in information and systems engineering from Politecnico di Torino. He has been elected as Head of Control and Computer Engineering Department and Academic Senate member and serves as Education and Research Ministry Advisor. He’s an IEEE senior member and cochaired the IEEE-CS International Conference on Computers, Software & Applications (COMPSAC) 2015. Contact him at demartini@polito.it.

Edoardo Calia is deputy director for strategic programs at Istituto Superiore Mario Boella (ISMB). His responsibilities include research lab coordination, establishing and managing relationships with other national and international research institutions. Calia also holds a teaching position at Politecnico di Torino for internetworking courses and wireless technologies applications. His background is in internetworking and IP routing protocols, and his first research activities were in the field of parallel and distributed architectures and systems. Calia has a PhD in electronic engineering from Politecnico di Torino. Contact him at calia@ismb.it.

Marco Mezzalama is a professor of computer engineering at Politecnico di Torino. His research interests concern several sectors of computer science and engineering, ranging from computer architecture and arithmetic to computer networks, design and testing of VLSI circuits, digital signal processing, and computer security. Mezzalama has a Masters degree in electronic engineering from Politecnico di Torino, where he is serving as deputy chancellor for ICT projects and strategies and president of the Center for Telecommunications and Computer Services. He has served as a guest editor of IEEE Proceedings, as well as a member of several scientific committees and boards of governors of IT companies and foundations. He is a member of the Science Academy of Torino. Contact him at marco.mezzalama@polito.it.

 


Required Reading

The following articles offer additional insight into the maker movement.

  • S. Hodges et al., “A New Era for Ubicomp Development,” IEEE Pervasive Computing, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 5-9, 2012; doi:10.1109/MPRV.2012.1.
  • M. Lau, J. Mitani, and T. Igarashi, "Digital Fabrication," Computer, vol.45, no. 12, pp. 76-79, 2012; doi:10.1109/MC.2012.407.
  • M.S. Abdelfattah, V. Betz, "The Case for Embedded Networks on Chip on Field-Programmable Gate Arrays," IEEE Micro, vol.34, no. 1, pp. 80-89, 2014; doi:10.1109/MM.2013.131.
  • C.R. Severance, "Massimo Banzi: Building Arduino," Computer, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 11-12, 2014; doi:10.1109/MC.2014.19.
  • K. Peppler, "STEAM-Powered Computing Education: Using E-Textiles to Integrate the Arts and STEM," Computer, vol. 46, no. 9, pp. 38-43, 2013; doi:10.1109/MC.2013.257.
  • C.R. Severance, "Eben Upton: Raspberry Pi," Computer, vol. 46, no. 10, pp. 14-16, 2013; doi:10.1109/MC.2013.349.
  • B.D. Johnson, "Jimmy Takes Manhattan," Computer, vol. 46, no. 11, pp. 95-98, 2013; doi:10.1109/MC.2013.392.
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