Maker Culture: From Renaissance Workshops to FabLab
Guest Editors’ Introduction • Claudio Demartini, Edoardo Calia, and Marco Mezzalama • August 2015
Translations by Osvaldo Perez and Tiejun Huang
Listen to the Guest Editors’ Introduction
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.