We all know, more or less, about how our consumer products come to be. Manufacturers study and design and iterate, sometimes for years at a time, until they have a product that consumers will be clamoring for. Heck, sometimes they even invent things we didn’t know we needed (looking at you, personal computers).
With access to “how to’s”, video tutorials, and a strong DIY ethic, plenty of people are getting involved in small-scale manufacturing on their own. Helping them along are shared spaces called “Makerspaces” (also occasionally known as “Hackerspaces”). In many ways, these makerspaces have become breeding grounds for great industrial designs. I was eager to explore from where many of these great ideas and products come.
So, what exactly is a makerspace?
These are places where people can come together and share tools, materials, and expertise to make things. These are the spaces to visit for anything from learning how to sew to 3D printing a prosthetic hand. They are run out of schools, libraries, and other available spaces. Makerspaces give community members access to machines and workspaces they might not otherwise be able to afford. They also allow members to learn from one another. One person may have a dream to build a smart-jacket, and another could have the know-how to solder together the hardware for it.
With all the buzz around Makerspaces, my coworker Julia and I wanted an opportunity to check it out for ourselves. Luckily, Louisville is home to LVL1 Hackerspace, which is open to the community and has regular “Learn-A-Thing” nights. Full disclosure, I had already visited the location once before for a local game development group meetup, but had not seen the full extent of the space.
Our visit to LV1 Hackerspace
Julia and I arrived early, which gave us time to fill out waivers (which only makes sense in a building full of power tools, soldering irons, and laser cutters). We also had time to chat with community members who were welcoming and ready to answer any questions we had. Neither of us had thought of any skills we wanted to work on ahead of time, so in lieu of learning to work any of the machines they offered, we were given a tour of the facility. And what a facility it is!
LVL1 Hackerspace is a deceptively large place. While I’d previously seen their main room and side classroom, they also have dedicated spaces for woodwork and metalwork, and a large storage area for members’ projects and spare parts that people can use to tinker with. The space currently has about 70 members who pay dues to help with upkeep; though the space is open to anyone who would like to use it.
Oh, the tools that are bestowed!
There, you can find tools and materials for things as diverse as embroidery, woodwork, metalwork, and electronics. Some things, such as the soldering irons and various electronic bits are free and first come, first serve. Others, like the 3D printer or the vinyl cutter do have material charges. Some of the larger, more expensive machinery requires a member to operate it for you.
While we were there, some of the members we met showed off projects that they were working on, or had done in the past. One member gave us a crash course in building our own computers with Raspberry Pi, and another showed off one of the first projects that LVL1 built, a voice controlled computer named “Whopper”. Whopper can answer basic questions about the date, time, and weather, and also tell cheesy knock-knock jokes. If he doesn’t understand you, he quotes movies and tv shows.
A personal tour from the president
All of this was a very cool experience, and Julia and I have definitely decided we want to come back once we decide what sort of things we’d like to build. However, I wanted to get a slightly different take on things, so I called up my friend Brad L to set up an informal interview. Brad, who’s an electrical engineer by training, has been involved with LVL1 for several years, and served as the group’s president for a while. He definitely feels that makerspaces have moved from being a small niche community and into something more mainstream. He also explained how the Maker movement has been affecting product design. In fact, GE’s FirstBuild was inspired by LVL1. A few of the GE execs visited, and then sponsored a hackathon. The enthusiasm and spirit for making new things inspired them to start their own setup to crowdsource ideas and provide a work space for Makers.
Fail quickly, and embrace cool
There were a couple of things that Brad said that really struck me during our conversation.
- The first was when I was asking about what opportunities ideas created in Makerspaces have to go big. He said that one of the most important shifts the maker movement introduced was “learning to fail quickly”. If something doesn’t work, you move on and try again. That’s something that can be applied to all aspects of life, not just manufacturing.
- The other was the conversation that was sparked when I asked “What would be your #1 reason to embrace the Maker movement?” He sat there for a second and then said, “Because it’s so. Damn. Cool. It’s open, welcoming, and engaging. Everyone can find a way to be wholly engaged in creating.” To me, this aspect of not being just a consumer, but also a creator, is very appealing. To understand how something works beyond “I pushed a button and it did a thing” is a skill that I value.
Developing products of the future
To be honest, the Maker movement has been around for over a decade. The internet means that a dedicated individual can learn almost anything at any time. Makerspaces empower people to solve problems creatively. This exploration can lead to uses and benefits that might never have been thought of during design meetings. In addition to giving people a creative outlet, they’re filling a space that was once filled by big manufacturing. Small businesses account for most job creation in this country, and the ideas coming out of the Maker movement are creating those small businesses. These small businesses are developing consumer products that range from clothing to technology. In a very real way, they’re creating the products that research firms such as TraQline will be tracking in the future.