Logo Regione Autonoma della Sardegna
sardegnaricerche  ›  ...  ›  news & events  ›  news  ›  the makers' world: from...

The makers' world: from marshmallows to 3D printers

Idea, prototype, product 
In this short video recorded during the Youth Science Fair, held last year at the White House, Obama watches admiringly as a young inventor operates his prototype marshmallow-firing cannon. Children and teens are rightly called 'digital natives', but the opportunities in their future go well beyond the web and the digital world: today, something new is happening in the world of innovation - we can sum it up this way: maker movement. Beyond the internet, yet thanks to the internet and to digital technologies, the past few years have seen the growth of a new DIY-focused culture. A mindset that builds bridges between digital natives and their analog parents, between bits and atoms. Here in Italy another way of labelling this trend is "technological handicraft" whereas in the rest of the world it is simply called "making". And, going back to Obama and the boy who invented the marshmallow gun, this is an excellent example of making.

Last year, the Economist described this phenomenon as the "third industrial revolution". The maker culture, or subculture, as defined by Wikipedia, has its centre of activity and creativity in the United States, especially in university environments such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The fab labs (fabrication laboratories), often set up on university campuses, are equipped for making "almost anything". These small-scale workshops offer all the tools needed to implement digital fabrication projects: i.e. all those activities involving the conversion of data into real objects and vice-versa. The maker movement was born some years ago in the USA, from where it quickly spread to Europe. The secret to its success are people and the network created between them, made up of interpersonal and web-based relations. The movement has now also reached Italy, with the Maker Faire, an event entirely devoted to digital makers scheduled to be held in Rome (from 3 to 6 October).

3D printing, digital fabrication, open source, internet of things, crowdfunding are the keywords of the makers'world. A world anyone can access, from kids building marshmallow-shooting cannons to university students using Arduino, a programmable hardware platform designed at Ivrea, Italy, to develop interactive objects. You do not need much to become a maker: for starters, free-to-download open-source software for designing your own prototype to be printed. The next step is getting a 3D printer: there are models costing even less than a pc, just a few hundred euros. Alternatively, one can rely on remote printing online services. This is indeed a democratic revolution, as well as an industrial one, accessible by all, cutting cuts costs and making life simpler.

Examples of ideas, services, products and start-ups created by the maker movement are too many to count. Many of these projects have the ambition of resolving huge social problems. A case in point in Italy is the WASProject, a start-up based in Ravenna which draws inspiration from the work of a wasp species, the black and yellow mud dauber. The project team's idea was to build a 3D printer to make clay statues. This is the first step towards the ultimate goal, which is to develop a printer to build clay houses, i.e. low-cost and environmentally friendly dwellings, similar to the mud nests built by these wasps. The objective is to address the worldwide problem of the lack of housing. To turn their project into a reality, the WASProject team have posted it on a crowdfunding platform. Crowdfunding, a fund-raising method relying on contributions from many individuals via dedicated internet platforms, is closely linked to and is growing in parallel with the maker movement: when personal resources are not enough to implement your idea, the alternative is to publicise and promote your project in order to raise the funds you need to develop it.

From the building industry to medicine: New Zealand designer Jake Evill has designed Cortex, the lightweight, water-resistant, 3D-printed exoskeletal cast offering an alternative to the traditional plaster cast. There are also those who go to the root of the problem and decide to make their own 3D printer at home. This is the case of Kentstrapper, a Florence-based start-up producing fourth-generation 3D printers inspired by the open-source philosophy. Controlled by the Arduino board, the Kentstrapper printers make prototype production files available under a Creative Commons license.

Turning to makers hailing from Sardinia, we must mention the Paraimpu team. Antonio Pintus, Andrea Carboni and Andrea Piras, researchers at CRS4, have created a system to connect any objects in the house to the internet using programmable boards such as Arduino. A close relative to Paraimpu is Jardimpu, a distance-controlled irrigation system conceived by Alberto Serra, also a researcher at CRS4. The idea is simple: controlling the status of your garden from a remote location and switching on the drip irrigation system. Jardimpu also uses Paraimpu to share information on your garden on social networks, thereby enabling your friends to control irrigation. To remain in the field of the home and smart systems, the Sardinia-based enterprise WiDom also began by creating a 3D prototype. This start-up is active in the home automation sector, offering green, low power consumption wireless systems. The home automation network is controlled by a small device whose prototype was developed using Sardegna Ricerche's rapid prototyping machine, a professional 3D printer available for use by all Sardinia-based enterprises on request.

In a nutshell, a passion for technology, a bent for creative thinking and willingness to break new ground are the essential ingredients you need to join the makers'world and play your part in the third industrial revolution which is unfolding right now: an opportunity open to all, and to be grasped at once!