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What Is ‘The Maker Movement’, And Should You Care?

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Last week at the 2016 SAP Retail Forum in Miami, my RSR partner Steve Rowen moderated a “fireside chat” style presentation with Dan Shapiro, the founder and CEO of Glowforge. Nikki referenced the session in her article this week, as well, but I’d like to take a dive just into the “maker” aspect of the discussion.

Glowforge makes a 3D Laser Printer that purports to have a low enough price point to be reachable by home technology users. The topic of the fireside chat was “Henry Ford Was Wrong – Delivering Experiental Retail”, and the discussion soon turned to how 3D printing could enable consumers to have access to all kinds of custom-built products at very low cost. This in turn raised the topic of “the Maker Movement”, and its potential impact on the retail ecosystem going forward. Steve and Dan commented that Millennials in particular seem open to alternatives to the highly commoditized product sets that retailers have been delivering to store shelves for ages.

The question is, is the Maker Movement real enough to impact the retail ecosystem as much as some people theorize? Once back in the comfort of my office, I decided to chase that question down. Here’s what I learned:

What Is The Maker Movement?

A March 2014 piece in Adweek described the Maker Movement this way:

The maker movement… is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers .... A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine… Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.”

The Adweek article goes on to discuss how companies as disparate as Levi’s, Home Depot, and GE are working with the Maker community via portals like Quirky, with the objective to (as Bret Kovacs, Quirky’s head of brand partnerships, said) “bring new products to market in months instead of years.”

The movement might seem to be primarily driven by 3D laser printing and the new technology’s ability to enable extreme localization of manufacturing. But the other tech-driven aspect of the maker movement that is so interesting is the collaborative nature of the culture, and that is enabled by peer-to-peer nature the Internet itself, especially social media.

A 2012 presentation at an annual gathering hosted by venture-capitalist company Altimeter by Jeremiah Owyang, co-founder of the Crowd Companies Council , outlined what business executives need to know about the collaborative economy:

The Next Phase of Social Business Is the Collaborative Economy. Social technologies radically disrupted communications, marketing, and customer care. With these same technologies, customers now buy products once and share them with each other…

Customers Are Sharing Goods and Services — Redefining the Buyer-Seller Relationship. <For example> Every car-sharing vehicle reduces car ownership by 9-13 vehicles; a revenue loss of at least $270,000 to an average auto manufacturer…

Innovative Companies Are Already Moving Into Collaborative Economy. Some companies have joined this movement. For instance, … Patagonia partnered with eBay to encourage customers to buy and sell its used products ... This movement impacts every industry.

Adopt the Collaborative Economy Value Chain. Companies risk becoming disintermediated by customers who connect with each other. The Collaborative Economy Value Chain illustrates how companies can rethink their business models by becoming a Company-as-a-Service, Motivating a Marketplace, or Providing a Platform.

More Than 3D Printers

While it might be tempting to try to limit the scope of the Maker Movement to 3D laser printer-armed DIY inventors, I think it would be smart for retailers to look at the bigger landscape of consumers who have chosen for one reason or another to build-rather–than-buy. The e-marketplace etsy.com is full of handmade craft items from everywhere. My daughter is an example of someone who uses etsy as both a buyer and a seller. She has three little daughters, and quickly learned that it is less expensive by far to make little party dresses for them than to buy them. Within a matter of weeks (the result of her posting pix on Facebook or Instagram), friends and friends-of-friends asked her where they could get the dresses, and a little cottage industry was born (her biggest technology investment? A serger - a specialized sewing machine to finish off the hems in a nice professional way). She began selling on etsy.com, and has since moved on to a whole new category of products – customized tee-shirts.

I jokingly refer to myself as a digital vacationer (as opposed to a digital native), due to the fact that I’m a classic Boomer – I started out in tech in the late 1970’s as an assembler coder and still want to know how stuff works. Regardless, I seem to have found myself joining in the Maker Movement, too. I wanted an electronic gadget and couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, so I decided to make my own. My technology of choice? A solder gun.

So who wins and who loses? The big winners are the stores and websites that supply the materials needed for makers. To the extent that the raw material or sub-assembly makers use 3D laser printers (for example, I needed a printed circuit board for my little project and someone with a 3D laser printer makes them), micro-manufacturers win too. In 2014, Time magazine decided to look into the Maker Movement, and observed that, “The Maker Movement has the potential to bring techies and non-techies alike into the world of being creators — some hobby-related, but for many, they could end up making great products and selling them online.”

The losers? Retailers and manufacturers who think that it’s still about selling highly commoditized products to as many people as possible, and nothing more.

Embrace The Maker Movement

The ecosystem that connects demand to supply is really changing fast, and it is no longer purely a push play from the source of the product to consumers. Increasingly, consumers don’t just consume; they collaborate with each other to find the best solutions to fit their lifestyle needs. While (as the old saying goes), “a can of peas is still a can of peas”, there are a vast number of discretionary products for which consumers want more choices, and increasingly that choice is, “I’ll make it myself”.

Retailers who in the past have sold those discretionary products should think about how they can serve this emergent group of consumers. Instead of losing the people of the Maker Movement, enable them.

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Articles & Opinions September 20, 2016
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