Hobbyists. That was the keyword Andrew Archer used in his help-wanted ad on Craigslist. Andrew needed help completing a large robot he was developing for use in auto factories. He wanted to target hobbyists who were curious and willing to figure things out for themselves. Jeff Sturges saw the ad and responded. Like Andrew, Jeff had moved to Detroit within the last year.
Andrew was offering only $10 to $12 an hour, but Jeff thought it was more interesting than any IT job he might find. On the phone, Jeff told Andrew about a community meeting for Maker Faire Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum that Sunday, and they agreed to meet there. That’s where I met both of them in January of this year.
Jeff had moved from New York City, where he’d been involved in the Sustainable South Bronx Fab Lab. In Detroit, he was able to buy a house for $500, and he rode his bike around town to live on the cheap. Jeff, who grew up in the Boston area, has a degree in architecture from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., so he knew the area. He returned hoping to create a hackerspace and develop school programs to get kids involved in making things.
Andrew had moved to Detroit from Duluth, Minn., where he’d started his company, Robotics Redefined. He was using off-the-shelf components to design new kinds of robots for factories. He said he had a dozen contractors working for him and had sales worldwide. I had to ask how old he was. “Twenty-one,” he said. I immediately thought that finding people like Andrew and Jeff was a good sign for Detroit, and that makers were already connecting with each other.
Jacqueline Campbell Archer is Andrew’s mother and his financial officer. As a single mom raising Andrew, she recognized that he had unique gifts that amazed and baffled her. “As a kid,” she said, “if he went to sharpen his pencil, he’d end up taking apart the pencil sharpener.”
From age 6, he took over the garage, bringing home things from yard sales or dumpsters.
“Andrew liked anything with a cord,” said Jacqueline. Once he hauled home a toilet so he could see how it worked. He then turned it into a fish tank. She would buy him tools as birthday presents. He built a capacitor from cookie sheets and mineral oil. For a ninth-grade science project, he built a two-foot-tall Tesla coil, something his teacher didn’t believe he — or anyone his age — could do. He did a demonstration in class, and the teacher was so afraid of electrocution that he made him shut it down. “I was really comfortable that I was a person making weird stuff,” said Andrew.
Andrew was mostly bored in school, feeling held back from exploring what interested him. He didn’t like sports. He didn’t connect easily with his peers. He dreamed of building a private spacecraft in his garage that would take him away to a new world.
More practically, he noticed that the rich kids in town all had mopeds to get around on. Unable to buy one himself, he began hacking one together from four bikes and an industrial weed-whacker engine.
Jacqueline worried about her son. When he was young, she had taken him to the Mayo Clinic, to consult with specialists. She learned that Andrew had a genius-level IQ, but she could easily see him dropping out of school or getting involved in drugs. She determined that high school was not challenging enough for him, and she sought to enroll her 14-year-old in courses at Lake Superior College. To do that, she had to sue the local school board.
One very positive experience for Andrew was his involvement in SkillsUSA and its annual competitions. In 10th grade, he entered the robotics competition and won third place in the state. “They gave us a robotic arm and a boxful of components to build an automated assembly,” recalled Andrew. “You had no knowledge going in of what you’d have to build.” The next year he was the state champion, traveling to the national competition in Kansas. A year later he was the national champion, requiring just four of the eight hours allotted to complete his project.
Andrew graduated from high school in 2006 and a year later completed his degree in robotics at the community college. He’d already completed a degree in machining at 16. “I was planning on going to Carnegie Mellon in fall of 2007, but
I decided not to,” said Andrew. While he liked CMU, he didn’t want them owning what he worked on as a student. “I decided instead to pursue my own thing,” he said, and started his robotics company that year.
At high-school graduation, Andrew saw his biological father, Bryan Fisher, for only the second time. Fisher, an inventor, had developed industrial baling equipment and built a successful company, Excel Manufacturing.
From the short time they spent together, Andrew thought that the two of them were identical. “What he was thinking, I was thinking. He’d approach problems the way I’d approach problems, and we’d come up with the same solutions and say it the exact same way,” said Andrew. “It was very strange.”
Nonetheless, Fisher remained distant. He “had his own set of issues and stayed away thinking he would probably be more of a negative influence on Andrew,” said Jacqueline.
Both Andrew and Jacqueline say that Fisher was consumed with his own success, living life in the fast lane. In April of this year, Fisher was found murdered in his home, part of a triple homicide by a tattoo parlor owner involved in selling drugs and running an escort service.
Fisher’s company website said about the 46-year-old founder: “All who knew Bryan knew he possessed an all-consuming passion for power and precision, which manifested itself through his love of airplanes, cigarette boats, Ducati motorcycles, and scary fast sports cars. That same passion guided his equipment designs and broke the industry mold.”
Andrew visited Excel Manufacturing the week after his father’s death to meet his employees and take them out for an informal dinner, something they said that his father would have done. “I tried to take away just the positive things,” said Andrew.
Like his father, Andrew has a fascination with motorcycles. On a summer night in 2009, Andrew was riding a Ducati Hypermotard and hit a broken culvert. “When I crashed, my first thought was — oh God, my bike.”
He didn’t notice at first that he’d nearly torn his thumb off and his foot was crushed. Regardless, he rode the motorcycle to the hospital. His injuries, which included a lacerated spleen, kept him in the ICU for several weeks. Doctors worked to reconstruct his foot, and he used a walker for the rest of the summer. His planned move to Detroit would have to wait until October.
Jacqueline helped Andrew find a place overlooking the Detroit River in a brick building near the downtown area. He set up a small workshop where he could work whenever he wanted. There’s orange tape on the wooden floor for testing some of his line-following robots, and his furniture comes from antique stores.
After Andrew connected with Jeff in January of 2010, they began working together to meet a March deadline for the factory robot.
“I give everyone a test to find out what they can do,” said Andrew. “Jeff got 94% on the test. It’s really hard. Electrical engineers coming out of school would get about 64% on the test. That Jeff did so well is really odd because he has an architectural background.”
Jeff, a young 33, started out by assembling circuit boards, doing surface-mount assembly, and learning how to test the boards. With his excellent people skills, he soon began doing project management. Jeff also recruited Bilal Ghalib, a maker from Ann Arbor, Mich., who organized the All Hands Active hackerspace there. Bilal’s job was to write the laser-scanner interface for the robot. “I just threw him at it,” Andrew said. “I didn’t give him any instructions, and he did it.”
Meanwhile, Jeff was also looking to find a place in downtown Detroit to set up a hackerspace. On a cold March day, he was in the Eastern Market district looking at vacant buildings in the old meatpacking area. The buildings smelled of dried blood and worse, and they were in terrible shape.
Pieces of mail were strewn about the floors, a good many of them delinquent tax notices. Jeff could see only the possibilities for each space, believing that they could be transformed. He liked the support he was getting from the management of Eastern Market, the location of the city’s largest farmer’s market and an area in need of new occupants now that the butchers had left town.
Andrew’s nickname for his factory robot is the Orange Twinkie. About three feet long and a foot-and-a-half tall, the Orange Twinkie consists of subsystems for vision, drive, safety, and human interface, all tied together by a core system running under the Microsoft .Net Micro Framework, which is what Andrew programs.
I saw a demonstration of the Orange Twinkie, moving autonomously around a test track defined by orange tape. Its goal was to approach a heavy item, pick it up, and relocate it. All the while the robot was busy, it played a chiptune from the Nintendo 64 game Mega Man, which Bilal had added.
A well-built Lego Mindstorms robot could follow tape using a sensor to detect contrast between the floor and the tape; however, a factory environment is not a typical Lego playfield. The tape can be removed easily to disrupt the robot, and the robot needs to be able to know if there are any obstacles in the way.
Andrew’s robot can follow the tape, but it also knows what to do if it gets bumped off the path. One of its upgrades is a vision system that can tell if people are in its path. If pushed away from the tape, the robot can reorient itself and get back on track. Andrew explained: “We have forward-looking vision and see ten feet out. We can cross aisles without having to put tape there.”
He’s learning about just how harsh the factory environment is. The robot will get kicked and even abused by workers who don’t like that a robot may be doing a job previously done by humans. One engineer who’s been in the field for 20 years told Andrew about examining a damaged robot that had numerous holes drilled in it, making it look like Swiss cheese.
The March deadline for the Orange Twinkie was set so that a safety inspector from one of the auto companies could put the robot through a battery of tests. “I am here to try and destroy your robot,” he said.
Andrew couldn’t believe it as the inspector slammed the robot, tried to kick in its sensors, and pushed against it to spin it violently off its path. Andrew perceived it as abuse and took a personal dislike to the inspector. Jeff said it was “shocking that the guy took incredible pride in trying to defeat what the robot wanted to do.” The robot withstood the beating, but it didn’t pass all the tests that day.
Andrew knew the robot would perform better over time. He was mainly satisfied that he and his band of hobbyists worked so well together.
“The hobbyist way is a really effective way to do things,” Andrew told me. “We’re utilizing tools that are available to everyone.” He wants Robotics Redefined to become a kind of think tank for building things. “I’m wanting to do some things that are unconventional,” he said with boundless enthusiasm.
By mid-April, Jeff had found a place in Eastern Market and formed hackerspace Omni Corp Detroit with a group of makers including Bethany Shorb and Andrew Sliwinski. With a grant from the Kresge Foundation, he’s developing an entrepreneurial community workshop to build tools for urban farming, in association with Earthworks, a leader in Detroit’s urban agriculture movement. And he’s teaching electronics classes for kids.
“This is what I wanted to be doing,” Jeff said. “This is why I came here.”
Detroit’s a wide-open frontier.
Makers and Spaces in Metro Detroit
Dale Grover, Bob Stack, and Eric Kauppi set up the A2 MechShop in Ann Arbor, Mich., a co-engineering space where several small companies share warehouse space, tools, and the open exchange of ideas. Current Motor Company, a small team of former Ford engineers creating electric motorcycles, is one of the companies located at A2 MechShop. Dale and Bob also host monthly meetings of GO-Tech Makers, which offers locals a chance to show off their stuff. Dale, Bob, and Jim Deakins put together the Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire, which was held for the second time in June. a2mechshop.com
Bilal Ghalib is an excitable hacker who instigated the All Hands Active hackerspace in Ann Arbor. Last year, he bought a JetBlue ticket that was good for unlimited travel in America for one month and visited every hackerspace he could, creating footage for a possible documentary. He also teaches silk-screening at a local teen center. allhandsactive.com
Andrew Sliwinski is a very creative, energetic maker at O2 Creative Solutions in Royal Oak. He and his multidisciplinary team create interactive devices and design experiences for clients around the country. His Sketch3D is a variant of Etch A Sketch that lets you draw and view drawings in 3D. Most recently, he created sketching software integrating HP technology into a fashion design solution for Project Runway. o2creativesolutions.com
Russ Wolfe and Nicholas Britsky are behind i3 Detroit, a hackerspace that started in Royal Oak and moved to larger quarters in Ferndale, just north of Detroit. Taking advantage of cheap real estate and a growing membership, i3 Detroit is one of the largest hackerspaces in the country. i3detroit.com Lish Dorset is a social media monger by day, helping companies connect on Twitter and Facebook. She’s also one of the leaders in the local craft community, organizing Handmade Detroit, a thriving craft fair in downtown Detroit. handmadedetroit.com
Andy Malone lives on a quiet suburban street, but his mechanical automata are born of the city, especially his 1967 Rebellion Chess Set. The chess pieces are kinetic sculptures based on the history of the Detroit riot (or rebellion). The rook is a speakeasy, which is where things first got ugly. The king is a politician and the queen is the media. A designer of museum exhibits by day, Andy has a ShopBot in his garage, where he builds his automata. andymalone.com
Bethany Shorb has her own eco-friendly screen-printing business, Cyberoptix Tie Lab, in downtown Detroit. She transforms neckties into something with a punk attitude, selling them direct online and from her own Etsy store. She says that while you can make things in Detroit, it’s hard to sell enough there — that’s why she relies on selling over the internet. cyberoptix.com
Workantile Exchange is a co-working space in Ann Arbor where regulars share an open work environment, right behind a coffee shop. On my recent visit, James P. Sweeney was working on the MAKE Controller as the brains of a RFID door-entry system for members. workantileexchange.com
Chip Flynn moved to the Bay Area from Detroit and worked with Survival Research Labs (SRL). Now he’s doing his own thing back in Detroit in a downtown warehouse guarded by rather softhearted junkyard dogs. He calls it The Destroy Space, a place where old machinery is waiting to be used or broken down and Chip’s mechanical robots wait to be activated. His “apetechnology” machines are loud and dangerous, qualities that don’t seem particularly out of place in Detroit.