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What I Saw at My First Maker Faire

Technology Editor Lou Frenzel was a maker long before the term ever existed, but what does he think about the namesake movement?

Last week, I finally went to a Maker Faire to see what all the excitement’s about. The Faire is a two-day event put on by Maker Media, the publisher of Make magazine. Its audience is a mix of do-it-yourselfers, hobbyists, experimenters, and students—or makers, as they’re called. Simply put, makers are a mix of adults and kids of all ages who like building things and experimenting.

Such DIYers have always existed, but for the past decade there’s been a resurgence in the participation of individuals making stuff. Called the maker movement, it includes anyone interested in making things involving electronics, woodworking, metal working, 3D printing, computers, and any other technical thing (like robots or drones). Makers build things from scratch, or else hack and/or repurpose existing items. Basically, anything goes.

At the heart of this movement is the aforementioned Make magazine, which is published bimonthly. It was founded and launched in 2005 by Dale Dougherty. This magazine was a rapid success, and Dougherty later added the Maker Shed—an online site that sells kits, books, and projects. In 2006, the Maker Faires were launched. These events have been held in major cities ever since, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The Maker Faire I attended was in my hometown of Austin. Attendance was hard to gauge, but definitely in the thousands over the two days. And what a mix it was: lots of kids and families of all ages. Many scruffy DIYers looking for ideas and projects and products. It was an eclectic mix of hobbyists, experimenters, students, teachers, tinkerers, artists, crafters, engineers, and hybrids (like me).

As for exhibits, it was truly what you can call a “mixed bag.” Some of the things that stood out were the various sewing projects, including automated embroidery and quilting. There were also several exhibits by cardboard makers who were building everything with boxes and tape. Amazing. Then there were the Lego displays and builders with astonishingly large projects. A variety of science projects were present. There were metal-making exhibits showing swords and knives. A rocketry exhibit showed off the latest models and methods.

Electronics had a major presence. Several kit makers showed products, lots of LEDs, and Arduinos. Robots were present in many forms, as were drones. The drone races were particularly impressive. Even an amateur radio club exhibited.

 Anyway, I spent half a day there absorbing the maker culture. I came away hoping the maker movement would help stimulate an interest in science, engineering, and technology in today’s youth. There are shortages of engineers, programmers and other technical workers here in Austin, not to mention nationwide. Who knows? Maybe a few makers will get the bug and major in some tech-related subject. Engineering students who are makers usually do great in college, as they mix the theoretical with the practical, hands-on nature of making. Makers make good engineers.

I’ve been a maker for years. I started when I got my first ham license while in junior high. And I’m still actively making. Recently I built a power supply kit for my work bench. I am also building a low-power (QRP) ham transmitter good for about 2 watts on 40 meters (7 MHz band). And I am experimenting with some different antennas—a major maker effort. I did get an Arduino computer recently, but as I’m a lousy C programmer, it doesn’t get much attention (despite the potential).

There aren’t many other publications for Makers, or venues like Maker Faire. Three magazines that do exist for electronic makers are Nuts & Volts, Servo, and Circuit Cellar. Since hams are makers, the amateur radio publications QST and CQ are also good sources. The big question is, should Electronic Design address this niche? Let me know your opinion on this.

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