There is a huge amount to learn when making things.
For the initial stages of taking your idea and turning it into a prototype the maker community is a good place to start. Both online and in person at your local makerspace or hackspace.
There you’ll find many people who know their Arduino from the Raspberry Pi; who know how to run the laser-cutter; who can help you design a model and then run it through the 3D printer; who can help you understand how to use a lathe and when you might want to.
For those of us building businesses to make things, there comes a point where the usefulness of the tools in your local makerspace starts to taper off - either because economies of scale unlock alternative manufacturing processes, or because you can’t afford the time to run the machines yourself alongside the rest of running your business.
At that point, how do you find out who can help? How can you find suppliers and manufacturers?
Your local Chamber of Commerce could be a good source, or maybe your Council or Local Enterprise Partnership. Maybe you’ll resort to a Google search.
Over time, our community of fellow makers here at DoES Liverpool is slowly building a store of folk knowledge of people to use. As individuals undertake different projects we find out where to get cardboard boxes die-cut or which place on the Dock Road is best for sourcing metal stock.
Capturing, Sharing, and Growing the Knowledgebase
It’s a slow process and dependent on the people in the community. You have to know who needed which process and hope that they haven’t moved on and lost touch with the network when you happen to need that information.
Finding a better way to capture this knowledge is something that a few of us have discussed from time to time. There is even a nascent group - the UK Maker Belt Association - which could provide a banner under which to gather.
As a result, when we started thinking about the proposal that became this research project it was something that we were keen to include.
A Commons, Not a Website
Over the years we’ve both sat in many sector strategy meetings, which often grapple with just this problem. We’ve seen many a mapping exercise give birth to a directory website and then watched as they slowly wither because there’s no funding for the ongoing gardening of the data.
A comprehensive mapping exercise of the whole UK Maker Belt is outside the scope of this project, much less the continuing maintenance. This means that from the outset we’ve been thinking about who might be the custodians of such a data set.
Who Tends the Commons?
We’re also not the only people to have been working on this. Make Works in Scotland (and just launched in Birmingham) and Just Got Made are building much richer and in-depth directories. Ross Dalziel has started an informal list with his shared Google spreadsheet “Industrial Estates of Note”. And there’s a cross-over with bigger open data communities such as Open Street Map.
Rather than duplicate effort or build another silo of information, we’re looking to ways that add to existing projects and that make it easier for the people engaged in this act of commoning.
Objective vs Subjective
It feels useful to split the data we’re gathering into two broad categories:
Objective These are facts about the businesses and their activities where there is just one correct answer. Things like the opening hours; the company website; or the processes and materials they deal with.
Subjective These are harder to quantify and lean nearer to opinions about the businesses. How easy are they to deal with? Are they happy working with small production runs? How small is a small production run…?
The objective data is easier to capture, and it’s more obvious where it could live. Open Street Map - the well-established community for collecting and organising geographic data - should be a good fit as a respository for this. They already have a decent subset of the information we’d be gathering, and methods for agreeing upon and adding new attributes. Plus the infrastructure - in people, servers, and tools - to support the dataset in the long term. And if we do a good job, there’s also the possibility of the rest of the global mapping community taking our ideas on board and over time building a world wide map of suppliers and makers.
It isn’t as clear - right now - what subjective data we should be collecting, or how and where it should be stored.
If we are placing the data into the commons, what are the risks to that? If this becomes - as we hope it will - a go-to resource for people looking to make things, there will naturally be advantages to the businesses listed therein. And where there is commercial advantage there will naturally be the temptation to tamper with the data.
Even if we can avoid people gaming the system, we need to work out ways to capture and convey fuzzier concepts.
However, there has been ample thinking about the possible issues and problems. It is time to make a start on the doing. We’ll begin collecting businesses and explaining how others can do the same. Once we’ve made some progress on that, we should have a better understanding of what else can or could or should be gathered, and iterate on our methodology.