How Makers Are Desktop-Fabricating a Revolution of Things

When I was in high school in the late 1970's, we had workshop class as part of the "Industrial Arts" curriculum. It wasn't quite clear why this was a required credit—we lived in suburb of Washington, D.C., and there were no factories around and most of my friends' parents were lawyers and government workers. But learning how to use workshop tools—band saws, table saws, drill presses, and the like—was just part of a mid-twentieth-century American education. The bad kids made ninja throwing stars; the worst made bongs. I made a crude magazine stand that my parents tolerated until I left home; I was lucky to have kept all my fingers through the process. Meanwhile, girls were steered to "Home Economics" to learn about sewing, cooking, and painting, which was, in a sense, another form of required crafting and DIY education.

At home, I made Heathkit electronics kits, which involved soldering irons and weeks of painstaking work with wires and components but were the cheapest way to obtain something like a citizen's band radio or a stereo amplifier. Chemistry kits had actual chemicals in them (as opposed to little more than baking soda and a ream of legalist warnings, as is now sadly the case), and were great fun. Anybody with a cool or temperamental car spent the weekend under the hood with a wrench, hopping it up and otherwise tinkering with its mechanics. "Taking things apart to see how they work" was just what kids did, and finding users for the parts launched countless fantastic machines, some of which actually worked.

How Makers Are Desktop-Fabricating a Revolution of Things

But starting in the 1980s and 1990s, the romance of making things with your own hands started to fade. First manufacturing jobs were no longer a safe way to enter and stay in the middle class, and the workshop lost even its vocational appeal as the number of manufacturing workers in the employment rolls shrank. In its place came keyboards and screens. PCs were introduced, and all the good jobs used them; the school curriculum shifted to train kids to become "symbolic analysts," to use the social-science phrase for white-collar information work. Computer class replaced shop class. School budget cuts in the 1990s were the nail in the coffin; once the generation of workshop teachers retired, they were rarely replaced; the tools were sold or put in storage.

Imported Asian electronics became better and cheaper than Heathkit gear, and the shift from individual electronic components like resistors and transistors and capacitors to inscrutable microchips and integrated circuits made soldering skills pointless. Electronics became disposable boxes with "no user serviceable parts inside," as the warning labels put it. Heathkit left the kit business in 1992.

Cars evolved from carburetors and distributor caps that you could fiddle with to rule injection and electronic ignition that you couldn't. Chips replaced mechanical parts. The new cars didn't need as much maintenance, and even if you wanted to go under the hood there wasn't much you could fix or modify, other than to change the oil and the oil filter. The working parts were hermetically sealed and locked down, a price we happily paid for reliability and minimal upkeep.

Just as shop class disappeared with school budget cuts, better opportunities in the workplace for women and gender equality killed Home Economics. Kids grew up with computer and video games, not wrenches and band saws. The best minds of a generation were seduced by software and the infinite worlds to be created online, and they made the digital age we all live in today. That is how the world shifted from atoms to bits. The transformation has gone on for thirty years, a generation, and it's hard to argue with any of it.

But now, thirty years after "Industrial Arts" left the curriculum and large chunks of our manufacturing sectors have shifted overseas, there's finally a reason to get your hands dirty again. As desktop fabrication tools go mainstream, it's time to return "making things" to the high school curriculum, not as the shop class of old, but in the form of teaching design.

Today, schoolchildren learn how to use PowerPoint and Excel as part of their computer class, and they still learn to draw and sculpt in art class. But think how much better it would be if they could choose a third option: design class. Imagine a course where kids would learn to use free 3D CAD tools such as Sketchup or Autodesk 123D. Some would design buildings and fantastic structures, much as they sketch in their notebooks already. Others would create elaborate video game levels with landscapes and vehicles. And yet others would invent machines. Even better, imagine if each design classroom had a few 3D printers or a laser cutter. All those desktop design tools have a "Make" menu item. Kids could actually fabricate what they have drawn onscreen. Just consider what it would mean to them to hold something they dreamed up. This is how a generation of Makers will be created. This is how the next wave of manufacturing entrepreneurs will be born.

From the book: MAKERS: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. Copyright 2012 by Chris Anderson. Published by arrangement with Crown Business, a division of Random House,