The fourth Maker Faire Detroit took place at The Henry Ford in Dearborn on July 27-28, 2013. When we first started planning Maker Faire Detroit five years ago, we knew it would be a challenge. The regional economy was as bad in 2008 as in any part of the country, and the forecast seemed grim. Yet even then you could see hopeful signs, even in downtown Detroit. Now that Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one might think things have only gotten worse over five year. However, I want to tell you that in fact they have gotten better. Maker Faire Detroit offers any number of hopeful signs that there’s new life not just in Michigan but perhaps throughout the entire Rust Belt.
Maker Faire Detroit gives us reasons to be optimistic when there are so many reasons to be discouraged. I have seen these changes over the five years I’ve been visiting the area and I believe they are significant. One maker said to me that Maker Faire Detroit represented new ways of thinking, and that it wasn’t the old way of thinking, which he keeps encountering in the region.
Time Magazine, which four years ago camped out in Detroit for a year, has Detroit on its cover again, another gloomy article about how the fate of Detroit may be a glimpse of the future for other cities. I’m sure that the fall of Detroit is fascinating to some, an object lesson to others; but it’s not the only story that should be told.
I live near, but not in, San Francisco. If there is ever a city full of itself, and billing itself as a city of the future, it is San Francisco. It’s a city that attracts talent. It’s a city that is prospering. It is the epicenter for a booming tech industry, which has its share of busts but none can imagine this era ever coming to an end. There are conferences, companies, and academics devoted to the future of cities, but they mean cities like San Francisco and New York. They don’t mean Detroit.
Detroit, which would seem to be San Francisco’s opposite today, was once such a place as San Francisco. It was a magnet for engineers, designers, and factory workers. It was the hub of a regional and national economy based on manufacturing and transportation.
Yet the industry that gave rise to Detroit got its start just over one hundred years ago in an area known for its farmland and farm machinery, and not much else. You can experience the memory of that world at The Henry Ford Museum where Detroit Maker Faire was held, but you can’t grasp how unpredictable it was that a farm boy would leave the family farm, work for Thomas Edison at an early power plant, and begin working side-by-side with mechanics and metalworkers. The cars that existed at the time were luxury items for the wealthy, more like yachts. Henry Ford had a vision for automobiles that they should be available to anyone; he wanted them to be cheaper and more reliable so that even a farm family could afford one. He also knew that by doing so he would change the world around him.
At Maker Faire Detroit, what you do see is hope for Detroit, and you see it in a set of fresh and determined faces that hardly anybody knows. They are closer to the mechanics and metalworkers of a hundred years ago than the executives who run those large companies today. I won’t say that you see budding Henry Fords in the group. I’m not saying that these makers will make it big and save Detroit. Simply, I’m saying that what they are doing is important and it’s important that they can do it. Cheaper hardware, DIY learning, and an open-source culture fostered by the internet is opening up new possibilities for many of them, and I want to applaud them for taking the lead.
In so many cases the people at Maker Faire Detroit were folks who have moved from industries that faded away or died, to working on their own ideas in their own workshops, and turning them into new, personal industries. What you see is a group of makers who share the feeling that what they are doing is making their own lives better and that there is the opportunity to contribute to something much larger than that.
Here are my 10 signs of hope:
1. Jeff Sturges
Jeff is a gem. Jeff came to Detroit about five years ago from New York. Just as I see Maker Faire as a tool to organize the community around what people love to make, Jeff is using making to organize diverse communities. He started with Mt. Elliot Makerspace, a youth-oriented makerspace in the basement of a church in Detroit. Jeff has connected to extraordinary makers in the community such as sculptor and master metalworking craftsman, Carl Nielboch, who brought his satellite-dish windmill to Maker Faire this year; as well as Mardi Gras costume maker Ralph Taylor who mentored several of the folks who brought hand-carried parade floats to this year’s event, along with members of the Eastside Riders Bicycle Club who came out in force. Jeff is also one of the founders of OmniCorp Detroit, a downtown hackerspace near Eastern Market.
2. Jason Kridner of BeagleBone
Jason is the designer of the BeagleBone board. The board is produced by Texas Instruments, where Jason works. Because of that, I presumed Jason lived in Texas, but he lives in a small town in Michigan about an hour north of Detroit. Working within the context of a large company, he has managed to develop an open-source microcontroller with an independent-minded community. One of MAKE’s editors wrote: “BeagleBone Black is a fast and versatile piece of hardware. I am amazed how far they’ve come in terms of getting the price down and the design of the board so streamlined. They listen to makers, as evidenced by such a radical design change like we saw from BeagleBoard to BeagleBone.” Jason told me that the kind of technical job he has can be done from anywhere in the world, even rural Michigan. What’s even more incredible is to be developing an open source project like BeagleBone, which is having such a positive impact as a platform that will available worldwide.
Something really small on the asphalt pavement caught my eye. It was moving, but I wasn’t sure what it was. When I went over, a tall young man with a full beard and ponytail was holding his iPhone and tapping it and the thing on the ground was changing direction in response. “First commercially available cyborg,” he barked, as a crowd gathered. The thing, this cyborg, was a large cockroach with a chip on its back. When the young man picked it up off the ground, a woman shrieked, “It’s a real bug!” I guess we’re rather used to the idea of insect robots but it’s actually an insect. We’re shocked.
Clearly, this creepy crawler was one of the most interesting things to be seen at Maker Faire Detroit.
Tim Marzullo and Greg Gage, co-founders of Backyard Brains, came out of the University of Michigan, and we first saw them with SpikerBox, a $100 kit that lets you list to neural signals, a kind of thing you could do only with much more expensive lab equipment. This cyborg RoboRoach is now a $99/product. This cockroach is being controlled by something similar to Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), which I recently wrote about and its use in helping Parkinson’s patients control their tremors. Check out some of our other coverage of RoboRoach.
Backyard Brains is a public research lab, in effect, funded by Kickstarter campaigns and sale of educational kits. Have a look at the RoboRoach in action:
4. Detroit Public Library
Steve Teeri runs the HYPE teen program at the Detroit Public Library and Valerie Sobczak is an organizer of the makerspace at the library. Steve and Valerie worked with teens to develop a robot petting zoo exhibit for this year’s Maker Faire Detroit. Steve is also one of the leader’s nationwide in promoting makerspaces inside public libraries. What has started out as a side program of the library could be its future.
This year, the Michigan cities of Lansing and Grand Rapids were represented each by a large tent full of makers. The Lansing Makers Network has just formed and they are about to setup a space in town. I met Carl Raymond of Lansing who was demonstrating homopolar motors and offering a kit for sale. Dean Piper of Grand Rapids was demonstrating the RepRap 3D printer that he built himself from the open source designs. It’s a positive sign to see makers in these communities coming together and supporting each other. Self-organized activity is driving the maker movement, and the Lansing Makers Network is a great example. It not only gives individuals an identity as makers, it fosters that identity in their community.
6. Steve Wygant and SeeMeCNC
Steve Wygant hails from Goshen, IN, a small town in between Fort Wayne and South Bend. He’s had a machine shop in town for a decade or more. When the economy started going south, new jobs stopped coming in. So he decided to come up with things he could make and sell, things that he already knew a lot about. He started with the idea of making CNC machines and that led he and his team to build the Delta 3D printer. It is quite simply a beautiful machine to watch in motion. The kit sells for $900 and you can buy one fully assembled for $1,800. A new model called Orion, which is not as tall and can be assembled more easily, was on display at Maker Faire Detroit and it will begin shipping this fall. Steve could not be more enthusiastic about his company and their opportunity. Last year, SeeMeCNC debuted at Maker Faire Detroit and he really was happy to be inside The Henry Ford, talking to people about these 3D printers. Steve had sold 10 of them this year at Maker Faire Detroit.
7. Brian and Mark VanDiepenbos
Also from Goshen IN, Brian VanDeipenbos has an engraving business and he began getting into 3D printing and CNC machines. He and his son Eric were exhibiting the Punkinbot, a machine that carves a design on melon or pumpkin. Eric also does some work assembling and selling SeeMeCNC 3D printers. Mark, brother of Brian, had a mini rotational molder on display, a machine that can be used for making plastic parts from resins. Brian said that he didn’t realize until recently that there other makers out there like himself. Maker Faire Detroit was a family outing for the VanDiepenbos family, and that says something good about the Midwest as well.
8. Andrea Springer from PADS
Andrea is getting her Master of Science in Architecture at the University of Michigan. She was demonstrating a kind of “pop-up” called Pneumatically Actuated Deployable Structures (PADS) that she developed along with Jeremy Luebker. These structures are very lightweight and are inspired by origami folding to expand and contract. Michigan’s higher education is remarkably strong, and it helps to attract and develop talent. Andrea was happy to talking to a general public about her work, and clearly, from the kind of questions she was being asked, they were fascinated by this work.
9. Phil Polstra, BeagleBone, Buzz Lightyear Lunch Box
Phil is a hacker and computer scientist at University of Dubuque Iowa. He has been working on a BeagleBone kit and Linux distribution for security applications. He was also demonstrating a BeagleBone-based computer inside a Buzz Lightyear lunchbox. Phil is an example of someone who knows open source software and is beginning to explore new ideas based on open source hardware. What happens when free software meets cheap hardware has his brain spinning.
10. Patrick Haggood, Grange Junior Makers
Patrick is a computer programmer who established the junior makers program at the Pittsfield Grange near Ann Arbor. They meet monthly on Saturday mornings and set up a popup makerspace for kids to do projects. Patrick brought some examples including a wooden xylophone made from 2×4’s and a large paper airplane launch made from a kid’s bike. Patrick’s enthusiasm is wonderful, and he’s particularly interested in how rural communities can re-connect to making. He’s helping kids have fun learning to make things such as the airplane launcher.
I would also like to mention Rick Pollock, founder of MakerGear, a 3D printer maker in Beechwood, Ohio; and Ken Burns of TinyCircuits in Akron Ohio where their office is in an old BF Goodrich plant that was once the largest rubber factory in the world.
Other signs are there, too. The continued growth of makerspaces such as I3 Detroit and AHA in Ann Arbor; the progress of TechShop and its members; or that the number of women in Star Wars costumes matched the number of men; and the overall sense at Maker Faire that there were lots of new exhibits and new makers. I thought that projects were growing in sophistication, evidence that makers are acquiring new skills and getting better, and they are also collaborating more.
In Detroit, when I talked to “maker pros”, almost none of them described themselves as “startups,” a word that has come to mean innovation. Most Makerpros had self-funded businesses, consisting of small teams working on new products, like Steve Wygant of SeeMeCNC or Ken Burns of TinyCircuits. By necessity, they had bootstrapped their own businesses. It belonged to them because it was their money and labor invested in it. They weren’t looking for venture capital. They were making some money selling things that they loved making and they were proud to be independent.
One of the attractions in Greenfield Village is the Wright Bicycle Shop from Dayton Ohio. It is, of course, where Orville and Wilbur Wright got started as mechanics. Every town once had a bike shop and many still do. Every town once had a computer shop. Seeing so many makers with 3D printers at Maker Faire Detroit, each one of them from a town like Dayton, I could imagine that we will see 3D printer shops in these towns. A 3D printer shop might make sense as a way of introducing more people to 3D printing and making the technology more accessible to many. Like a car dealer, you may want to talk to someone about 3D printers, see some demos, and do a test drive. It might help to know that the shop is there to support the 3D printer and provide service and upgrades.
So, don’t believe all the doom and gloom you hear about Detroit. In places like Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Indiana along with other parts of the Midwest, there are signs that you can see today that offer hope. The real lesson of Henry Ford is that innovation can happen where you least expect to find it.