David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth
Trebuchet shaped like the Foshay Tower, created at The Hack Factory as part of a series of Twin Cities-themed siege engines
A little over a month ago, Phil Torrone wrote a maker’s love letter to his city, Make: it in NYC. In the post, he lauded New York for its exceptional making conditions, for both work and play. He made a strong argument for why he thought NYC was the best place to be a maker, and an ideal place for his business, Adafruit, to operate from.
I read the piece as soon as it was posted, and agreed with all of Phil’s points. I had recently attended the World Maker Faire there and was very impressed and inspired by all the makers from the area. But I’m a San Francisco kind of guy – I love the people, the scenery, the open-mindedness. Especially when it comes to making, it’s almost overwhelming how many incredible makers and resources that are available there. And the Maker Faire Bay Area, San Mateo still draws the biggest crowds (at least for now).
At the end of the piece, Phil turned the post towards the readers and invited them to make a case for their cities. Perhaps not surprisingly, not too many people took up the invitation. In fact, most people chimed in to agree about their love of NYC. To be perfectly honest, the answers didn’t surprise me as much as the question did. I mean, wasn’t the “ultimate maker town” really a discussion between San Francisco and New York (and possibly Detroit)? I tucked the thought into the back of my mind and didn’t think much more about it.
It wasn’t until my trip back to Minneapolis last week, to visit my parents for the holidays, that I realized how wrong I was about assuming this was a two-horse race, and how timely and pertinent PT’s original question had been.
I grew up in Minneapolis and it will always hold a special place in my heart. I still believe that the people are the nicest in the world, and that it’s a fantastic place to live. I didn’t, however, realize how much of a maker town it is. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, considering the last two people featured in the “Meet the Makers” series here on the MAKE site were from Minneapolis: William Gurstelle and Adam Wolf. But I didn’t realize just how organized the maker community was.
On my first day in town, I met with AnnMarie Thomas, Engineering Professor at the University of St. Thomas and creator of Squishy Circuits. I had been trying to meet AnnMarie since I heard her give an inspiring talk at World Maker Faire called Making Tomorrow’s Makers, in which she discussed the role that making and tinkering at a young age had on famous inventors, and the ramifications for future innovation. After trading numerous emails, we were finally able to find a time that worked. She was as big of a help as I could have hoped for. She gave me a number of good new maker tips, a tour of the awesome design lab at St. Thomas, and most importantly, she gave me a list of other groups and makers to connect with during my stay in Minneapolis.
One of the groups, TC Maker, happened to be having an open hack night that evening at their hackerspace, The Hack Factory. TC Maker began in 2009 when Paul Sobczak started an online forum and discussion. The online discussion, coupled with meetings at coffee shops, generated enough interest to move into a warehouse in Minneapolis. I got a tour of the space – the wood and metal shops, the electronics room, the CNC area – and was surprised how big it was. And why wouldn’t it have been. Minnesota rent isn’t nearly as expensive as for the hackerspaces in SF, LA, and NYC that I’d visited. The large area and diverse tools were being put to good use, too. The Hack Factory was bursting with activity, combining maker hospitality with Minnesota nice is a combination for a great group of people.
The location of The Mill, a non-profit, membership-based industrial arts/makerspace being built in Minneapolis
Another group that AnnMarie mentioned was The Mill, a maker space structured very similar to TechShop. I hadn’t heard of The Mill, and as it turned out, they weren’t actually opening until mid-January 2012. I sent them a message on Twitter to see if I could get a sneak peak of the facilities and got a prompt response to stop by the following week. When I arrived at the building, I was greeted by Brian Boyle, the Founder, and Greg Flanagan, Director of Operations. The space was still being worked on, but it was easy to visualize how it will come together in the next few weeks. The Mill will be providing a very similar experience to TechShop, meaning they’ll have all the tools you need – CNC machines, laser cutters, 3D printers, wood, and metal shops – and the class mentoring to get everyone up to speed.
Throughout my trip, I was tweeting about all these pleasant surprise discoveries of maker resources in my hometown. One of my tweets caught the eye of John Baichtal, MAKE writer and author of Cult of Lego, who also happens to be a Minneapolis resident. John and I met for coffee on the day I flew back to San Francisco. Talking with him was great. Not only did I get to ask him more about his books, but he gave me an insider’s account of how the area maker community came together, how all of the groups had formed, and where they might be headed. I was amazed that all these developments had happened so recently – mostly in the past few years.
I know Minneapolis isn’t alone in this. I know that makers all over the country (and the world) are gathering into formal and informal organizations. I used to worry that what I was doing, going from “Zero to Maker,” was something that could probably only happen with the resources of a city like San Francisco or New York. Well, turns out, I was very wrong. And that’s a fantastic discovery.
More: Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey