The future of making

By Phil King. Posted

Predicting the future is fraught with problems – we’re still waiting for flying cars to become the norm. Still, we’ll give it a go… We’ve consulted some movers and shakers on how things may change in the makersphere over the next few years. Will making become more mainstream? What trends are we likely to see in the fields of SBCs, microcontrollers, robotics, and 3D printing? What does the future hold for open-source hardware? And will the emergence of AI affect how makers go about creating projects?

Looking ahead towards the next five to ten years in the makersphere, the experts we consulted were able to point out some emerging trends.

First of all, on a cautionary note, Limor Fried hopes there won’t be another chip shortage, “as that really set folks back and damaged a lot of the industry: there’s recovery, but we know of a lot of maker companies that are still struggling or closed shop. The flip side is we’re starting to see more chips and technologies come out, although a lot of it is focused on AI – it will be interesting to see how the excitement of LLM/GenAI translates into making… or not!”

“In the longer term,” says Kevin McAleer, “I think we’ll see better and more affordable tools for makers, continuing the trend with developments in 3D printing and laser cutting. I also hope to see an increase in the number of makers who share their projects online; I find it a great source of inspiration and we need more!”

The rise of the machines

We can expect AI to become more prevalent in making, says Andrew Sink. “It’s hard not to see AI and generative tools becoming more commonplace as the barrier to entry (cost, required programming skill, etc.) continues to lower. Personally, I am excited to see new software tools and workflows enabled by these advancements, especially where niche hardware and software disciplines overlap.”

Kevin adds: “I think we’ll see an increase in the sophistication of the kinds of projects people are building where they combine AI tools, such as Ollama [the locally hosted, offline alternative to ChatGPT], into their builds. This, combined with the continuing improvements in single-board computers and microcontrollers.”

Regarding the latter, Jeff Geerling foresees more people migrating into embedded designs from “now more-expensive single-board computer-based projects. That started to happen during the industry-wide parts shortage, but it’s accelerated as more projects show the value of well-supported microcontrollers like the RP2040. ESP, Arduino, and Pico devices are being integrated into so many projects, it’s almost surprising when I see a new product that doesn’t use one of them.”

The lower costs and greater user-friendliness associated with microcontrollers will also draw more people into the world of making, reckons Jeff. “These platforms are beginner-friendly. Making the technology more approachable with things like full MicroPython support means more makers can build features that were very difficult just a few years ago. I see an influx of makers who don’t have much of a coding background.”

Mainstream making

This brings us neatly onto the subject of whether making will become more mainstream over the next few years.

“I think it will continue to grow,” says Matt Venn. “We see a lot of creativity with mobile phones and apps, as more people have access to tools, but I do think that there is something special about physical making. Holding something in your hands that you made is special, and as the barriers to that continue to drop, more people will get involved. Having access to the tools, equipment, and time is a privilege that still many people don’t have, so as well as appealing to people from different backgrounds, we also need to support them when they are interested.”

“Making will be more mainstream because of accessibility and community,” agrees Jeff. “Kids especially are at the leading edge of ‘mainstream’ maker culture, for example CrunchLabs build boxes, or Raspberry Pi’s deep penetration into classroom STEM projects. That will have long-term effects as kids are exposed to the tech, just like my generation was inspired by video games and the early internet.”

Limor concurs: “We think that making gains a lot of STEAM (ha!) from being introduced in schools, so as we saw schools returning back to in-person instruction and workshop projects, we’ll also see more makers. I’m a strong proponent of meeting kids where they are: if they have a background that they love medicine, teach them about how to build a pulse sensor. If they love animals, show them how to craft a ‘smart’ chicken coop monitor or an automatic pet food bowl. Fashion lovers can drape themselves in LEDs! Skateboarders can use accelerometers to analyse their air time.”

Kevin points out that making is already more mainstream than it was ten years ago. “I think that’s a combination of events like MakerFaire, magazines (like HackSpace), and the availability of parts from companies like Pimoroni and Adafruit. The ecosystem for makers is there for makers to be part of and to learn from other makers too, particularly with social media and YouTube….” He has one caveat: “I think for making to become even more mainstream, it needs to lose a bit of its nerdy image. Making is for everyone!”

Lowering barriers

Not only is making likely to become more mainstream, it will continue to have an impact on mainstream technology, says Jude Pullen. “Through their enthusiasm and experimentation, makers can create unexpected breakthroughs in technology that shape our future. It spreads the ‘bets’ on where the next revolution or evolution will come from… The makerspace communities often ‘tinker’ with future tech long before it reaches wider adoption.”

He gives the example of bio-hacking communities, “where even school kids can sequence a plant genome using only ~$1000 worth of hardware. This is kind of mind-bending when you think about it. Another space I’m watching is edge computing, but this is going to be governed by privacy and security. So this is sometimes the ‘friction’ between makers’ can-do attitude, and industry still needing to be compliant and safe.”

Read the full article by downloading issue 78 of HackSpace magazine.

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