They’re called ‘Makers‘ in the States and Artigiani Digitali in Italy, and they’re slated to be the next wave of artisans. With this month’s Italy Roundtable topic being ‘handmade,’ I get to talk about my new project as the blog editor for MakeTank, a blog and marketplace that intends to become the Etsy for Italian, and soon worldwide, digital makers. Combining a long tradition of artisan skills with a crisis-driven recognition of the need to evolve towards new technologies, Italy is well poised to become a leader in this new movement.

What’s the difference between a Maker and an artisan? An artisan is a traditional tradesperson who uses traditional and often hand-operated tools to produce items on a small scale that may be classic or modern in style. The definition of ‘Maker’ differs a bit between what some people are calling Makers in the USA and what the Italian community understands it to be. While our American counterparts associate Makers with the general DIY movement (cfr ‘Make Magazine’), the Italian and, I believe, more correctly specific definition, limits the term to those who use certain digital means to produce tangible objects – thus calling them artigiani ditigali gives a pretty good sense of what we’re talking about. Furthermore, there tends to be a difference in mentality between Makers and artisans that is a defining element of the movement, and that is a belief in openness and sharing. Open source hardware and software, as well as collaboration, are a big part of this movement, in part out of necessity since, being new and mostly promoted by young people, there’s a need to teach each other how to use machines and materials. The artisan tradition involves a more structured and single-disciplinary process passed from teacher to apprentice. This is a simplified definition so any open artisans can hold their protests for now, okay? I know you exist and you’re just great. Really.

So what exactly do Makers… make? Well, they like to use mainly three technologies. The first is the one that receives the most press these days, and that’s 3D printing. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, but chances are you haven’t had the chance to see a 3D printer or its products up close. It’s like an ink jet printer, except that the ink is melted plastic that is laid down in layers that are defined by a 3D modelling program (like Google sketchup, which is free). In the past few years, major progress has been made in bringing low resolution desktop versions of these machines on to the market. For 600 euros or so, you can have one in your house and print out anything plastic you put your mind to. This technology has been used on an industrial level for years to make prototypes, but only recently has it been considered potentially useful for finished products. In particular, it allows independent young designers to have ideas and print them out right away, giving them an immediate and physical feedback for their ideas, and permitting, in some cases, direct commercialization on a small scale. An example is the Block Lamp made by Stefano Giovacchini, a young designer friend of mine from Lucca. Low cost, simple, with minimalist lines but a new kind of ‘handmade’ texture, that of the melted layers of plastic typical of 3D printing.

Block lamp, 3D printed and designed by Stefano Giovacchini

3D printers are controlled by a computer chip that is a kind of open-source hardware called Arduino. Arduino was developed in Italy, and is still made in Italy, and without it, probably the Makers movement would not exist. With this cheap piece of equipment, you can make things in the physical world respond to digital or physical input. For example, you can set up a Christmas tree in Florence and have people around the world send a tweet to turn it on, make it blink, etc. You need some basic programming, but mainly, you need an idea and a sense of the logic that needs to be applied to make it work. There are Arduino workshops being held regularly around the world; I recently attended some in Florence (you can read about that here). When asked to give an example of what you can make with Arduino, one of the most typical examples is a device called Botanicalls that allows your plant to send you a tweet when it needs water.

The third technology that Makers love is lasercut. Again, this is not new technology, but smaller, cheaper machines have recently made it available to a consumer public. Many crafters use small lasercutters to make cards and cutouts that they once would have attempted with an x-acto knife, only you can now cut incredibly complex patterns and with less risk of missing the line… or cutting yourself! But most of all you can cut thin strips of plywood and plexiglass with these machines (commercial ones cut thicker wood and metal too). Anyone able to draw a vectorial image in photoshop, or hand draw something flat and then scan it, can design for lasercut. The technology is particularly suited to making colourful acrylic jewelry and home accessories. One example I love combines technology and fashion: this lasercut USB ring by Annaluisa Franco, a professor at the IED design school here in Florence. Strips of lasercut acrylic are combined and clip together to hold a thin 8GB USB inside, so you can wear your memory!

USB ring by Annaluisa – for sale on MakeTank

The real revolution of the Makers movement is the consumer to consumer model it allows. That is, single producers – i.e. guys with garages, or you with a computer – can design and make things and sell them to single consumers. The first successful website to make this happen is Etsy, where crafters of all types can offer things for sale. Etsy sold 895 million dollars worth of merchandise last year, and it takes a listing fee and cut of each sale. There are lots of beautiful things by what we are calling (digital) Makers on Etsy, but they’re hard to find amongst the more traditional crafts. Which brings us to MakeTank, which I said at the beginning of this article would like to become Etsy for Makers. Starting with Italian Makers we know, and moving out towards a European and eventually international set of vendors, MakeTank offers a space to help single people make businesses out of their passion for designing and producing great stuff. It’s also a blog that keep tabs on the entire movement, published both in Italian and English to help Italians access some of the information out there that is only available in English.

The store is currently (Feb 2012) in Beta launch mode which means I am writing about something that is online but not technically ‘launched’ just yet. You’re likely to see a few mistakes in the shop, and we’re still waiting for many vendors to insert their products. But in a few months we’ll have a big launch party, and if you see the shop at that time, hopefully what you’ll see is a good range of the kind of products Italian Makers are creating these days. We think that the historic Italian sense of design, the manual skills present from the artisan tradition, and the desire, on the part especially of young people, to start one’s own business despite all the associated challenges is going to result in a boom of this movement in Italy – a new kind of ‘handmade’ that will be treasured worldwide.

Italy roundtable on the topic of ‘handmade’

Each month, the female knights of the roundtable publish on a given topic. Check out they have interpreted the topic of handmade in Italy.

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