This article from the NY Times explains it well - The Kitchen Table Industrialists
Excerpt from the article:
If you lived in Detroit in 1961 and watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” at a drive-in, you might have caught a 30-minute trailer called “American Maker,” sponsored by Chevrolet. “Of all things Americans are, we are makers,” its narrator began, over footage of boys building sand castles. “With our strengths and our minds and spirit, we gather, we form and we fashion: makers and shapers and put-it-togetherers.”
Fifty years on, the American maker is in a bad way. Such is the state of American industry that waste paper is among the top 10 exports to China, behind nuclear equipment but far ahead of traditional mainstays like iron and steel. Manufacturing employment has fallen by a third in the last decade alone, with more than 40,000 factories shutting down. More Americans today are unemployed than are wage-earning “put-it-togetherers.” But the American romance with making actual things is going through a resurgence. In recent years, a nationwide movement of do-it-yourself aficionados has embraced the self-made object. Within this group is a quixotic band of soldering, laser-cutting, software-programming types who, defying all economic logic, contend that they can reverse America’s manufacturing slump. America will make things again, they say, because Americans will make things — not just in factories but also in their own homes, and not because it’s artisanal or faddish but because it’s easier, better for the environment and more fun.
What makes this notion something less than complete fantasy is the availability of new manufacturing machines that are cheap, simple and compact enough for small companies, local associations and even amateur hobbyists to own and operate. What once only big firms with hulking factories could fabricate can now be made in a basement or by e-mailing a design to an online factory-for-hire. These machines can produce all sorts of things, including plastic pencil holders, eyeglass frames and MP3 players.
Makers, as they call themselves, can’t compete with the long, orderly rows of workers from the poorer provinces of China or India who cut, stitch and solder bras, shoes and cellphones for pennies — or even with the hundreds of billions of dollars a year worth of stuff that continues to pour out of large, old-fashioned American factories. Their method involves creating “hacker space” cooperatives, where a few dozen members share a 3-D printer, a laser cutter and an oscilloscope and engage in collaborative manufacturing projects. Makers have created companies like Shapeways and CloudFab, which for a fee will manufacture small runs of products that you design. They are becoming kit makers like Bdeir, manufacturing building blocks that allow others to create things.
Neil Gershenfeld, an M.I.T. physicist who is an intellectual godfather to the maker movement, suggested to me that the new tools would over time change global industry as we know it. He predicts a wave of new competitors for the megacorporation that designs, makes and sells products all under one brand. Instead, Gershenfeld imagines a consumer of the near future downloading a design for a mobile phone through an iTunes-like portal; buying an add-on from another firm that tweaks the design; and having it printed at a neighborhood shop in a plastic shell of your choice.
The new personal factories may seem like crude toys for only the most die-hard D.I.Y.-ers. But in technology circles, they are talked about as a looming revolution that could change the way people work and create new opportunities for millions. Personal factories can perhaps be compared to the earliest personal computers — versions of their giant counterparts that are drastically cheaper but also slower and more clumsy. This futuristic vision is the one that the White House endorsed in a recent report on personal manufacturing: “Within a generation, you will have a hard time explaining to your grandchildren how you were able to live without your own fabber,” it said, using a popular word for the new manufacturing tools. “Personal-fabrication technologies present an opportunity for our nation to continue to lead the rest of the world in manufacturing, but in a new way.”
Of course, I can't say all that to people when they ask, so I typically answer - "Garage Inventor" - people who explore the possibilities of what they can dream up and build using their minds and tools, and the minds and tools of their friends...
If they are still paying attention at that point, I _attempt_ to explain that a Hackerspace is not a den of evil...