“We invent things in America; we don’t make them here.”
You may have heard this statement before, referring to the idea that American companies are good at creating the next big thing, whether iPhone or automobile, but the manufacturing process just can’t happen here anymore. It’s an idea that has become far too common.
This recession is one of the worst in American history, with unemployment at record highs of any time since the Great Depression. In spite of this, we remain faithful that things will get better because we, as Americans, are resilient. And things have started to get better, slightly.
Our leaders have tried to spark some life back into the economy, but as we try to create or save jobs, all too often it seems we accept a reality where new American jobs will not be about making things. Those skills and that ingenuity will be offloaded to nations “less developed” than we are. At the same time, we watch these developing countries grow so quickly as workers overseas build products we invent.
You can find arguments for and against the offshoring of manufacturing. Some think it’s time for America to move forward to new, knowledge-based careers. Others argue that the days of American greatness are fading with our assembly lines. Whatever your views on this issue, you have to admit that building something, truly designing and creating an invention from start to finish, is an art form that has been part of the American way of life from its beginnings. Losing these skills here at home, no matter how cost effective, represents a fundamental culture shift.
What happens to a country that doesn’t make things?
If this concerns you, as it does me, then you will find good news in the Maker Movement, and more specifically the Open Source Hardware movement. The communities surrounding and supporting these initiatives hope to start a technological and philosophical revolution that will bring making and building back to the forefront in American life. It is their hope that the skills (like math, science, and engineering) involved in making something will be valued again in our culture. Not that we will simply say we value math and science, but that we back up those claims by creating opportunities for people, especially young people, to apply those skills or even make a living using them. We will make it possible and affordable to build something again.
What is Open Source Hardware? (OSHW)
The newly formed, New York City based Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) defines OSHW as “a term for tangible artifacts — machines, devices, or other physical things — whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use those things. “
This community is inventing, developing and releasing all of the documentation behind printed circuit boards (PCBs), microcontrollers, sensors and other modules that become the building blocks for the next generation of technology; and by doing so, they hope to make the world of hardware accessible to everyone from 60-year-old tinkerers working in their basement hobby shops to 11-year-old students who are picking up their first soldiering iron. The goals is to empower people to build new technologies with only their imaginations to limit them.
The Open Hardware Movement isn’t only powering the next generation of technology, but it’s also holding itself accountable for making things here in America. SparkFun Electronics, one of the biggest open-source hardware developers and retailers, does 100% of its production at its home location in Boulder, Colorado. MakerBot, whose founder Bre Pettis is on the cover of Wired magazine this month, has its entire operation in New York City. There, the bots are assembled, tested and shipped all over the world. Finally, Adafruit Industries, yet another major player in the open source hardware movement, does the majority of its production here in America, too.
The OSHW Community stands as an example that many industries in America should follow. Making in America is woven into our collective history. Henry Ford’s Model T changed not only the way we got around, but reshaped employment and the economy. Companies that made things created jobs — well paying jobs — that valued skills and trade in addition to higher education.
The open source hardware and maker movements have the potential to rebuild those opportunities for the 21st Century. They give us confidence that the economy will get better because we will build something better.
It is by accepting the responsibility for making what we invent here in America that together we will be able to change our current circumstances, reshape our economy and in the process make a better future for ourselves and the next generation. If that is a future you wish to see as much as I do, then I encourage you to learn more about OSHW and the Maker Movement. I challenge you to make something.