"*Article originally published on CityBizList"
Finally Maryland has something to celebrate about its manufacturing sector – a growth spurt that it hasn’t seen for years. But it’s deceptive if we don’t recognize and support a more important underlying trend – the Maker Movement.
Hobby Hacking. What started as a movement for hackers and hobbyists to tinker with model planes, robots and similar weekend distractions has become much more. Maker spaces, places where individuals with like interests collaborate on their personal passions have been profoundly reset as places designers and entrepreneurs focus on prototyping, testing and scaling their products and technologies. Baltimore has seen an explosion of such Maker Spaces across our entire city, from The Foundery in South Baltimore, to Open Works and Baltimore Node in Station North, to Baltimore Hackerspace in northeast Baltimore and Harbor Designs in Pigtown. So how can these seemingly small, however cool, initiatives have any meaningful impact on the future of manufacturing?
Rethinking Manufacturing. While we as a nation struggle with whether “traditional” manufacturing jobs will ever return, there is a renaissance possible if we allow the Maker Movement to transform how we think about (and support) manufacturing. A recent Bookings Institution post suggests that the Maker Movement can “[touch] off an industrial revival in America that brings back economic growth, opportunity, and decent jobs for blue collar workers.” And I would add for the economically disadvantaged in our inner cities.
Education/Skills/Jobs. The Maker Movement has rapidly morphed from the realm of artisans and hobbyists to that of entrepreneurs. The reason for this is, as the Brookings post suggests, the “democratization of manufacturing” as a result of technological advancements in software, 3-D printing and other technologies that allow anyone to design, test and rapidly prototype an idea. Early stage manufacturing has moved from the realm of a behemoth capital intensive factory to a relatively inexpensive shared space down the street. Apart from easy access to technology and equipment, the real juice in these Maker Spaces lies in the skills development that occurs, not only through formal classes but also through shared experiential collaboration and problem solving.
Why this Ecosystem Matters. This has been a decentralized, ground up movement in Baltimore, as in most cities which have similarly vibrant Maker Movements. The question isn’t for Baltimore how to start such a movement; it is how to support its vibrancy and growth. The Brookings post has five suggestions:
Let the maker community self-organize – it knows its needs best, work to understand and support its needs – “the next generation of manufacturing wisdom is more likely to bubble up from local experiments than trickle down from legacy institutions”
Identify and celebrate the maker spaces you have – support collaboration and learning among such spaces, including introducing best practices / new models
Engage local community colleges, universities and national laboratories, bringing their research, expertise and facilities into the mix
Experiment with new forms of education and training – “create maker-style mentorships, apprenticeships and internships” – some of which is already happening in Baltimore
Baltimore City should recognize in its Maker Movement not only the opportunity to repurpose our manufacturing past but to bring all of our residents into a technology-driven future, with relevant, purposeful, well-paying skills. The Brookings post concludes, “in the end, the future of manufacturing in America is going to be high-value, high-tech, and more automated – dominated by new production technologies and fast-evolving supply chain practices.” The Maker Movement offers cities such as Baltimore “a practical, inclusive, all-hands-on-deck approach to preparing for and shaping the future of manufacturing.” The best part for us in Baltimore is that our Movement has taken off throughout the city. Now that it’s been discovered, rather than get in the way, we need to listen and help where the community itself says it’s needed.
With more than 30years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He chairs the Board of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.