“Isn’t this cool?” he says, clearly giddy.
Kleinman is a maker, a word derived from Make Magazine, the glossy bible of everyday hackers using social networks, do-it-yourself-then-show-it-off Web sites, cheap parts from China, and blissfully simple microprocessors to modify or invent new electronic products for their houses, cars, offices and back yards.
Recent studies show consumers now spend more money tweaking and inventing stuff than consumer product firms spend on research and development. It’s more than $3.75 billion a year in Britain, and U.S. studies under way now show similiar patterns. Makers are even morphing into entrepreneurs, with some of the best projects, including Kleinman’s, raising money for commercial development of self-funding Web sites such as Kickstarter, where anyone with a credit card can chip in to back cool ideas.
Major companies such as Ford are, after years of resisting inventor gadflies, inviting makers to submit product tweaks. “This is the democratization of technology,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, a senior engineering executive at Ford.
“Policymakers and economists always assumed that consumers just consumed and that they don’t innovate,” said Eric von Hippel, who studies technological innovation and makers at MIT’s business school. “What’s clearly happening now is that all of a sudden it’s easier for us to make exactly what we want.”
Makers convert 1930s rotary phones to Skype phones, repurpose crockpots into yogurt fermenters, wire remote controls for solar power, turn laptop monitors into desktop monitors, morph Lego blocks into USB memory sticks and even build homemade lie detectors with Velcro sensors that wrap around fingers. The most advanced makers gather in pop-up hacking spaces, including HacDC, located above a Columbia Heights church, to hear experts lecture and tinker together over Schlitz beers.
Accountants are makers. Bored IT guys are makers. Government workers are makers. Todd Evans, an Arlington architect, became a maker this winter when he wanted gloves that would allow him to type accurately on his iPhone in cold weather. He bought some conductive fabric online, cut holes in the fingertips of gloves, sewed the fabric in, and then posted pictures of the project to Instructables.com, a Web site where makers swap ideas and know-how.
“When it’s good and done,” he wrote, “turn the glove back to right side out and you’ll be texting in no time!” The project was a hit — hundreds of people clicked on it in the first few days. “I can’t even post something on YouTube that gets 10 hits,” Evans said.