In an October 2008 presidential debate, moderator Tom Brokaw asked whether serious challenges such as climate change could be met by big Manhattan-style projects like the one that developed the atom bomb, or by people working in 100,000 garages, which is how Silicon Valley started.
Both candidates wandered off topic, but I really wanted them to answer the question. As a matter of national policy, do we think change will come from ideas developed by the “best and brightest” minds? Or will it come from grassroots innovation, widely distributed and wildly varied?
When I heard the question, I replied on our makezine.com blog: “A lot is going to depend on people working in 100,000 or more garages, probably with little funding or support. … Our goal is to find some of those industrious, ingenious makers at work in garages everywhere.”
Like fabled garage bands, Silicon Valley startups, and Mister Jalopy’s bike repair workshop (above photo), maker-led businesses have been started in all kinds of unusual spaces. Here are a few examples:
Limor Fried moved into a live/work space near Wall Street that she got for the right price because young investment bankers were fleeing the city. She’s come up with numerous original designs, including the Proto Shield for Arduino and MiniPOV kit, and she set up Adafruit Industries (adafruit.com) to bring those designs to market. A pioneer, along with Phil Torrone, in the open source hardware movement, Fried’s most recent project is the award-winning Tweet-a-Watt (see page 112), which allows you to monitor your electricity usage via Twitter.
Nathan Seidle started SparkFun Electronics (sparkfun.com) in his apartment, as he finished up an EE degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Initially, he tried making products based on surface-mount devices (SMD) without buying an expensive reflow oven. Kitchen toaster ovens toasted the components while melting the solder paste. Hot plates would heat the bottom of the board only.
“At one point, we had four people building boards and reflowing on the hot plate,” he says. After three years working with crock pots and hot plates, Seidle decided in 2006 to buy a used reflow oven for $5,000.
Today, his production operation is staffed by 20somethings who have learned about electronics on the job. It’s a factory without an assembly line — a mix of machines, tools, computers, and engaged workers learning new things. SparkFun has become the new RadioShack, with 50 people working on two floors of an office park whose previous tenant moved their manufacturing to Alabama and Thailand.
Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules started iFixit (ifixit.com) out of their dorms at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif. That was six years ago. Today they have a self-funded business that sells the parts and tools you need to repair Apple equipment. One of their innovations is creating online repair manuals for free that show you how to make the repairs.
“Our biggest source of customer referrals is from Apple employees, particularly folks at the Genius Bar,” Wiens says. They refer customers who complain when Apple won’t help them fix an out-of-warranty product. (Apple: “Just buy a new one!”)
iFixit will also buy your old Mac and harvest the reusable parts to resell. (There are about 30 such parts in a MacBook.) If it’s starting to sound like an auto parts franchise, well, Wiens and Soules have been thinking about someday doing for cars what they do for computers and handhelds today.
Derek Elley is chief strategy officer for Ponoko (ponoko.com), a company based in New Zealand that allows you to design and manufacture almost any 2D design by having it custom-cut on a ShopBot or laser cutter. Recently, Elley told me Ponoko was opening factories in the United States, starting in Oakland, Calif. I asked him where and he said at “Because We Can.” I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been.
Oakland-based Because We Can (becausewecan.org) was started by Jillian Northrup and Jeffrey McGrew out of the small converted barn that was their house. The couple was among the first makers to master a ShopBot, bringing it to the first Maker Faire to show off their coffee tables and lap desks. They also tackle larger projects such as fantastic office interiors, one even inspired by Jules Verne. They recently moved to a commercial space, which McGrew says has a roll-up door and gets cold like a garage, “but it’s not really a garage.”
As ShopBot (shopbottools.com) founder Ted Hall thought about 100,000 garages from his Durham, N.C., headquarters, he saw it as a big idea about digital fabrication. Was it possible to build a network of 100,000 garages, sharing similar sets of tools and capabilities? Could each garage become part of a highly flexible and distributed manufacturing network? Could work be distributed to these garages via the internet, so that individuals and companies who create or design things could have them made locally?
Working with Bill Young, also of ShopBot, Hall has set up 100Kgarages.com to spearhead this effort, creating new jobs and opportunities for makers. “New digital fabrication tools,” Hall writes on the site, “allow us to efficiently make things that would have just a few years ago been at best difficult, and most likely impossible, using traditional tools and methods.”
Hall began talking to Ponoko about providing the software infrastructure for the new garage network. So watch for “Bill and Ted’s” next excellent adventure, which might take American manufacturing in a completely new direction.
On the internet, nobody knows that your factory is really a garage.