The Maker Movement and the New “Outsourcing”

Freeman Dyson, the British American physicist and mathematician said that “A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible.” I’ve stumbled upon this quote a few times since accepting my first engineering job. In my opinion, it pigeon-holes the engineer into being creatures of habit, or what Emerson might describe as, one who practices a “foolish consistency”.

Enter the “Maker Movement”: There are technologies today which can circumvent the need, as well as enhance the effectiveness of one’s theoretical background in science and engineering – not the least of which is the Internet. The spirit that had individual Americans applying for patents at a rate higher than anywhere else on Earth is coming back, with new tools. As technologies like 3D printing become more affordable, one could argue that a level of sophistication is being introduced to the individual inventor, previously known to apply a brute-force approach to innovation when funding was less plentiful than ideas. I’d prefer to say that, if necessity is the mother of invention, then the mother of invention provides an environment from which inventions can be reared. Simply put, Mom moved a lot. Today, we see IT professionals operating machine tools at night. We see engineers using their skills, and pursuing ambitions outside of their day jobs. So let me take an opportunity to say this: That’s the way it’s always been. The difference is in the number of choices innovators have to innovate, collaborate and communicate. Words like “hackerspace”, “crowdsourcing” and the “Cloud” tell the story of today’s innovation. My grandfather was a house painter but in his garage worked on what became one of the first collapsible saw-horses (U.S. 2689154). He didn’t have crowdsourcing or kickstarter.com, and finally broke-even by selling the patent to Sears and Roebuck. He didn’t benefit from Government interventions like the “Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act”, which promotes and helps implement crowd funding. For the first time, we see a grass-roots movement to promote American innovation by the individual. They don’t carry picket signs or demonstrate on the capital steps. Yet their message has been heard at the highest levels of government because they’ve demonstrated success on their own terms. As innovative environments change, so does our description of the engineer.

And so now, we re-examine Dr. Dyson’s quote and ask whether or not engineers can produce original ideas. We ask this question in a climate which is redefining the engineer, where the modern prerequisites don’t necessarily include a college education and where a resurgence in environmentalism is beginning to make new demands of our best and brightest to go beyond the new, and also focus on recycling and renewing antiquated technologies.