The Maker Community: Where Work Meets Play

A 3.333Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Makers—and the maker movement—are getting a lot of press these days. Perhaps the renewed focus on “making things” is due to the technology—such as SketchUp 3D modeling software and 3D printing—that has made creating so easy. Perhaps it’s a reaction to modernity’s store-bought everything. Perhaps it’s the community that has sprung up almost overnight, adding a sense of neighborhood to the online world.

Whatever it is, hobbyists all around the world are making, “hacking,” and collaborating on a vast array of projects. Together they comprise the maker community, a growing group recognized as a powerful movement of connected, creative individuals.

Marcus Ritland of Denali 3D Design in Minneapolis offers his own definition of the people in the maker community: “They’re people who want to make something outside of their professional work, like a software engineer who wants to get his or her hands dirty at home and make a wooden bookshelf.” As such, the maker community encompasses all kinds of creative projects, including computing,  electronics, woodwork and traditional arts and crafts.

The maker movement is identified as such largely due to Maker Media,  which—through media, events and e-commerce—serves the growing community of makers. Maker Media helps individuals connect through its MAKE Magazine and annual Maker Faires held in San Mateo, California, Detroit and New York. Maker Faires are venues for makers to meet other makers and showcase the projects they have created on kitchen tables and in workshops throughout the year. Mini Maker Faires are also held around the world.

3D Modeling Software and 3D Printing: a Door to Making Ritland’s entry into the maker’s world began while he was researching career options in college. A proficient AutoCAD user who worked in construction while at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Ritland wanted to offer CAD services as a career, but wasn’t sure what was possible.

During his research, Ritland discovered SketchUp 3D software, which was originally designed to enable architects to design, document and communicate. SketchUp enables drawing in a way that emulates using pen and paper, uniquely rendering drawings in both 3D and 2D. “I liked that it was fun and easy to use,” says Ritland, “but it was the SketchUp community that got me hooked.” Through online videos and case studies, and from spending time on the SketchUcation forum, Ritland learned SketchUp well enough to teach it.

In 2008, Ritland started his own business offering design and SketchUp training services. Businesses and individuals aiming to create their own products—bringing them to life via 3D printing—now employ Ritland to design, or finish designing, their ideas in SketchUp. His business is growing; Ritland is also writing a SketchUp user guide for 3D printing.

Then, in 2010 Ritland entered a competition held by i.materialise to design a lamp in SketchUp that could be printed in 3D. His twisted-star lamp design, which explored many of the capabilities of SketchUp, didn’t win the competition, but because he wanted to see the lamp in real life, Ritland printed the lampshade through Shapeways 3D print service. After asking a local lamp repair shop for advice, he took home the necessary parts and built a lamp for the first time. That was the first of many projects he has designed and 3D printed.

Making at Work and at Home: More Alike than Different
Makers are also sometimes known as hackers. While the term holds negative connotations in some contexts, in the maker community hackers are those who push the limits of what’s possible, or who creatively alter existing technology paradigms for their own ends. For example, industrial designer Samuel N. Bernier of le fabshop, a 3D printing service and community in France, collaborated with an associate, Andreas Bhend in Sweden, to invent a creative new use for two kitset stools purchased from furniture-maker Ikea. Two seats, eight legs, and some bespoke 3D-printed plastic parts later, the pair produced a unique and stylish balance bike for a young child

Mark Harrison, marketing manager for SketchUp, believes there is a strong correlation between object-making hobbyists and hackers, and design professionals. "Makers are trying to solve many of the same problems as professionals working on building, infrastructure or land development projects," he says. "Their projects often have great complexity and often require handoff between more than one stakeholder or software platform. This is why we also make SketchUp available to hobbyists for their project design."

Bridging the Gap between Ideas and Reality with 3D Printing
One of SketchUp’s key contributions to the maker community is that it helps to put the possibility of 3D printing into everyone’s hands. 3D printing is the process of making a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model. The object is built layer by layer–an additive process–where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. This manufacturing process makes any geometric shape achievable in a variety of materials, including plastics, ceramics and metals.

3D printing enables anyone with an idea, or dozens of ideas, to bring it to fruition: No expensive, inflexible mold is required. So anyone from artists to inventors to hobbyists can enjoy seeing their ideas come to life. "The bridge from your ideas to reality lies in 3D modeling software that describes your model in a way 3D printers can understand," says Ritland.

In order to create an object via 3D printing, SketchUp users begin by drawing their idea in SketchUp. They can manipulate the drawing, modify it, and more. SketchUp’s simplicity at this stage allows professionals and hobbyists alike to focus on the problem they are trying to solve, not the tool. When the plan is complete, it is sent as an .stl file to a 3D printer for manufacturing. Ritland recently acquired his own 3D printer, a Solidoodle 2, but makers can also use a 3D printing service.

Philip Tarr, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of London and enthusiast of mountains, maps, and geology, is currently bringing to life his ambition to make accurate scale models of individual mountains, each with a choice of detailed textured surfaces in full color. With a background in algorithmic graph theory and network science, Tarr felt that his lack of ability in arts and crafts, particularly papier mache, made this dream impossible. However, 3D modeling software and 3D printing is helping Tarr bring his dream to reality so that he can share it with others.

Tarr had to learn from scratch how to use seven new applications–including VT Builder; QGIS; Blender; SketchUp; MeshLab; AccuTrans 3D; Paint.NET and Gimp–for GIS, 3D modeling and 2D image processing. Tarr reached out to Ritland for advanced SketchUp help when he couldn’t find the information online. This challenge is typical–it is not unusual for makers solving complex design problems to interact with multiple software applications.

Tarr uses Ordnance Survey Open Data (Terrain 50) to create the models–elevations are sampled at 50 m (164 ft) intervals on the ground (which in the scale of his models corresponds to 1 mm). He then drapes map and aerial photo images over the surface of the model. So far Tarr has created a 3D model of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, and Scafell Pike in the English Lake District, t
he highest mountain in England. He is currently working on Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. "I hope to sell the models on Shapeways to outdoor enthusiasts and tourists alike via", Tarr says.

Making Neighbors Around the World
From physical spaces known as makeror hackerspaces to those strictly online, makers reach out to one another, sharing and synergizing resources, collaborating in knowledge and ideas.

Professionally, Ritland has helped many people bring their ideas to fruition using SketchUp. His clients have included a bicycle maker who wanted a metal logo to attach to each bike, and a handbag designer who wanted her own metal clasp design. Ritland also helped a landlord who needed to recreate a discontinued window latch part. Instead of replacing multiple windows in his rental properties, the landlord can now for just a few dollars simply install the part he has made–complete with modification for easier window opening–thereby saving himself time and significant cost. The landlord is no longer at the mercy of the window manufacturer’s business decisions, but is now able to provide himself with the things he needs. Through SketchUp and 3D printing, all these clients have been empowered by the ability to make exactly what they need, at a very reasonable price.

Aside from his professional success, Ritland is still irresistibly drawn to the SketchUp and 3D printing community, which is populated by makers and professionals alike. Once a month, Ritland hosts "meetups" to teach interested locals about SketchUp and how to utilize the increasingly popular 3D print service, Shapeways; in his downtime he’ll often try to solve the challenges posted by SketchUp users on online forums. Visiting the forums does sometimes bring in new business, but that’s not why he does it. Says Ritland, "I guess I just like helping people."

The Shapeways forum is where Ritland met Andrew Whitacre, a Communications Director for MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Whitacre is an accurate example of Ritland’s definition of a maker; and his first project illustrates the power of the SketchUp community.

With little experience, but highly motivated, Whitacre wanted to create a snow globe for his wife, customized with an accurate model of their home inside. Whitacre describes his project on his blog post at My Introduction to Making, A Family Story. Whitacre was planning his project in SketchUp, which he had downloaded and taught himself. However, eventually his ambitious project temporarily defeated him. In a bind, he reached out to the Shapeways 3D printing forum online. In the process of helping Whitacre, Ritland exchanged upwards of thirty e-mails with him—he even created a 14-minute individualized video tutorial. Says Andrew, “For me, the process of learning SketchUp and 3D printing was like the idealized picture we have of neighbors in each others’ basement workshops. Of course, the difference with the online SketchUp community is that the neighbor might be thousands of miles away, on another continent even, and the workshop entirely virtual."

Visualization + Collaboration = Creation
As a tool for professionals and makers, SketchUp is popular for its ease of use and 3D printing capabilities. However, it’s the online community that is SketchUp’s unique contribution to the maker movement. The SketchUp community is made up of developers who have created hundreds of plug-ins to make tedious tasks easier, plus a multitude of SketchUp users who are willing to help each other. Ritland says, "Together they make using SketchUp fun."  Note: SketchUp 3D modeling software is available for free for non-professional projects. Go to: for your free copy.

Frances Mortimer is a freelance writer specializing in high-tech positioning solutions, including conventional, GNSS and spatial imaging survey systems. Frances writes out of the USA and New Zealand.

From Mountains to Job Sites
Touchable Models

Seeing–and touching–a physical model is a powerful tool for project visualization. When Philip Tarr makes one of his mountain models, he accesses publicly-available data developed using surveying and aerial sensors. And he works on an enormous area–literally an entire mountain–with elevations taken at 50 m (164 ft) intervals. However, the workflow Tarr follows can easily be applied by surveyors and GIS professionals on a smaller scale to produce physical models to help clients develop clear understanding of their sites.

The accurate topographic data gathered by instruments such as the Trimble VXTM Spatial Station or Trimble V10 Imaging Rover can be used to create a 3D virtual model in Trimble Business Center or Trimble RealWorks® software. The site images collected by the instrument can then be draped over the virtual model. If that virtual model is exported to SketchUp, the results can be used to 3D print a physical model of the job site.

A 3.333Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE