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Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native Tom Gralewicz is a Maker’s Maker. In 2011, he cofounded Milwaukee Makerspace, driven by years of experience as an active member of various clubs, including the Milwaukee Electric Car Club, DPRG (Dallas Personal Robotics Group), ChiBots (Chicago Amateur Robotics Club), and the Milwaukee Robotics Club, the latter two of which he helped start. Gralewicz started out his career working as a software engineer for early laptops at Texas Instruments, then spent a few years as a professor teaching computer science at Southern Methodist University (SMU), then opened a surplus store that turned into a computer store selling new and refurbished machines, then started a computer recycling business. He says, “By then I hated computers so much all I could do was spend the next 12 years destroying them.”

Perhaps one of his most memorable claims to fame comes through his participation in the Power Racing Series (PPPRS) since its inception. The gist of the race, for those who don’t know, is taking electric toy cars of the Power Wheels persuasion and amping them up to carry adults and race against other teams, all with a budget of under $500. Gralewicz, at 6’4″, chose a pink Barbie three-wheeler as his base, naming it the Little Pink Trike. He went on to hold the honors of being the first Power Wheels racer to pop a wheelie, the first racer to break his vehicle while popping a wheelie (three times in a row), and the first driver to retire, explaining, “mainly because I won my first race after three years and didn’t know what to do.” Always a team player, Gralewicz has also been instrumental in helping build a number of other cars, including Red Lotus, Jake N. Stein, Mr. Fusion, and Lotusaurs Rex.

His latest project is a giant clock he’s building to display at the second annual Maker Faire Milwaukee, taking place on September 26 and 27. Gralewicz explains, “Milwaukee has laid claim to having the world’s largest four-face clock: the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower. I thought that was so last century, so I decided to build my own giant digital clock. But of course I can’t do it the easy way with lights, so I designed a seven-segment digital clock where the segments are lines painted on boxes that rotate to show the correct segments and display the time. It’s a great project that includes multiple members from Milwaukee Makerspace and local businesses for supplies.” We chatted with Gralewicz to learn more.

1. You’ve been involved in starting a number of clubs and eventually a Makerspace. What is it about collaborative building/spaces that you love most?
For the most part, I’m the common nerd and tend to shy away from social outings, and yet I keep working with people starting clubs. I’ve wondered about this for a while and the best explanation I can come up with is I like making things and clubs are things. It doesn’t hurt that when I work with someone on a project I’m more likely to finish it or at least have fun sharing it.

2. Tell us about the experience of helping start Milwaukee Makerspace. What were the biggest lessons learned and the greatest rewards?
Starting Milwaukee Makerspace was like busting open a dam. It started with Royce Pipkins and I saying, “Hey, we need one of those in Milwaukee.” Then there were a dozen people willing to pay a year’s dues to get it launched in a few months. Then we got a building, followed by a new, bigger building. Suddenly we have 200 members, are working on buying the 16,000-square-foot building we’re in, and are helping organize one of the most well-attended Maker Faires in the country. It’s been an amazing journey in a few short years.

The biggest lesson learned from starting a space seems to change and evolve as the space grows. The first challenge was just getting the word out: Hey, we’re making a Makerspace! Starting a web page and blogging about what members are doing seems to work well. Building some goofy floats for a local parade and passing out fliers helped as well. We hacked together some giant pots of gold and drove them in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Later we had to evolve our management structure: first to add a board, then to give them enough power to control problem members. It’s been a learning experience from the start and continues today.

Like most people, I’ve fantasized about what I would do if I won the lottery. Well, apparently I’m not very normal here. I didn’t want a mansion, fast cars, my own island, or to travel the world. I would’ve bought the empty grocery store near my house, spread out all my tools, added a few more, and had a place to work where I didn’t have to move stuff around to use a tool. Plenty of room for big projects, supplies, and racks full of stuff to use. I’d need to hire someone to keep the tools running and teach me the things I didn’t know.

One day I walked into the Makerspace and realized I didn’t need to buy lottery tickets anymore! There were plenty of good working tools, spread out with room to work, people who helped keep them running and brought in new ones, and there was always someone there who knows more than I do and will take the time to teach me. Think of how much I’m saving on lottery tickets!

The best part of the Milwaukee Makerspace is walking into the building and seeing all the people, the things they’re making, and what happens when a few work together sharing skills and knowledge. I’m surprised and amazed every time I walk in.

3. What was the first Maker Faire you attended? What was your initial reaction?
The first Maker Faire I ever went to was in 2010 in Detroit. We had heard about the Power Racing Series and wanted to do something as a Makerspace. So even though we didn’t have a building (we worked in my garage), we picked up a bunch of Power Wheels cars on Craigslist and went to work. We built five cars for that first race and took most of the “members” of the space. Granted, we didn’t have any cars fully functional when we left Milwaukee, but we managed to get them all racing most of the weekend.

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The Faire itself was an eye-opening experience. Seeing so many people making so many things, it was a huge moral boost to our efforts to create a space, and it planted the seed of having a Maker Faire in Milwaukee.

4. What inspired your giant digital clock project?
It all started one day years ago when a friend described a clock he had made. A sunrise clock, it doesn’t wake you up with a loud noise or blaring music, it gently turns up the lights in the room to make you think it’s dawn. So after thinking about it for years, I finally got around to looking into the project. It’s surprising it took me so long because I really hate alarm clocks — so much so that I always seem to wake up before they’re set to go off so I can turn the alarm off. I did this for years in high school only to discover the alarm on my clock didn’t work anymore the one day I needed to get up really early. Some nights I dreaded it going off so much I woke up every hour and checked!

So I looked into commercial sunrise clocks, and pretty much everything I found was around $100. Now I’m rather frugal and thought, “I can build one for way less than that!” I figured I would take an existing clock, cut out the noise maker, interface it to a light controller, and be done. Then I wondered, “How long should sunrise take? What time should it start? What color lights should I use?”

The simple controller turned into an Arduino, the light became two meters of RGB LEDs (there’s a ledge behind my headboard where these hide), and I needed a few more bits that led to throwing out the original alarm clock and building from scratch. I needed a screen to see the time and adjust the settings (I’m a bit blind without my glasses so I picked a 4″ color LCD) and a clock chip to keep the time. Once it was all together, I had spent over $120! Then I realized that the basic Arduino doesn’t have enough memory to hold a nice 2″-tall character set and blowing up the one I had looked terrible.

Now I wasn’t about to waste money buying another Arduino with more memory, so how do I make nice-looking 2″-tall digits on a high-res LCD without a bunch of memory? Well, the old seven-segment display could be simulated with a few squares and triangles, and it was a retro look, so why not? Don’t worry, I still use the high-res screen for menus and displaying the alarm time in the corner, so it wasn’t a total waste.

Here I had an expensive, high-res, full-color, high-tech clock looking mostly like my $10, 20-year-old alarm clock. And I liked it!

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To make a long story a bit longer, it got me thinking about other silly ways I could’ve made my clock and I hit on the idea of building a seven-segment clock that didn’t use lights or LEDs at all — instead, it would have the digit segments painted on boxes and motors to rotate the boxes so the right combination of segments showed to display the time. When I suggested this as a giant clock to display at Maker Faire, I was told to go build it! So look for an 8′-tall, 16′-long, alarm-less alarm clock at Maker Faire Milwaukee.

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5. What has your R & D process been?
The first thing I do with any idea is to look and see if someone else has already done it. I don’t like making copies or even building something more than once. Variety is what makes making fun for me, so I:

  • Think of as many phrases that describe my idea and search for those phrases. Look, read, dig, see what else has been done before.
  • Plagiarize. I hate to reinvent the wheel and love to take things others have made and adapt them to my needs. When I built the sunrise clock, I specifically chose parts that had libraries already written to speed up the code-writing process.
  • Talk it out. Tell my friends, family, anyone who will listen to my idea. Not only do they have different perspectives and ideas, but the simple act of describing a projects makes me think about it and how the pieces will go together. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been describing a project to the tree in my yard only to realize there was a better way to do something.
  • Take a good look around, talk to my friends, hunt through my junk boxes, the scrap yards, my friends’ piles of parts. I enjoy repurposing and reusing. It’s part cheapskate and part personal challenge. Need a heavy duty bearing for a sand muller? Look at old trailer axles. Need to move a 6,000-pound mill three feet to clear a wall? Grab a pallet jack, some wood blocks, and old pipe, then you can inch it along on rollers to get it where it needs to be. Not sure what gear ration to use on your Power Wheels racer? Grab an old lawn tractor transmission, hang a winch motor on it, and off you go!
  • Don’t be in love with a part, idea, or approach. Flexibility and an ability to adapt to what works keeps the frustration level low and the fun of experimentation high.

Gralewicz, who is 6’4″, stands next to the base structure of one of the clock segments.

6. How many people have collaborated on the project with you?
A member of the space built a crashed UFO for the Faire last year, and he had a real problem getting help because he needed hours of help for long blocks of time. I learned from this and have been working to break the Dancing Clock down into parts that can be done in an hour or two. This has gone a long way toward not only getting helpers but including lots of people. I currently have over a dozen contributors and expect as many more by the time it’s done. Check out the plaque on the finished clock to see the list.

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The mechanism inside one of the clock segments

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The housing for one of the segments, which will be stacked two tall for eight total

7. You’ve built everything from electric cars to robots. What types of projects are you working on these days, other than the clock?
The good news is I keep a list of projects I want to work on, some day. The bad news is it’s a long list and gets longer every year. The worse news is I’m a bit ADD and like to have three or four projects in the works at any given time so I can switch around when I get tired or stuck on one. My current projects include:

Electric Dodge Neon — I keep finding new things to experiment with. I added an encoder to the motor last fall but blew up the motor controller, so that needs fixing and I’m toying with adding a generator to make it a hybrid.

I also have a battery monitor board I designed to graphically show the battery condition for each of the 25 batteries, it got as far a a bunch of prototypes, but I don’t think I’m going to finish it. I’ve come up with a better solution: we used the existing monitors on the Power Wheels cars.

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Pods for Power Wheels — A single module that contains the motor, gears, axle, and brake for a single wheel on a car. You can see the prototypes on Loutasaurs Rex.

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The Matsuura VMC [vertical machining center] the space picked up last year was a challenge to get running, then it blew one of the axis drives, so I need to pull it and and see if we can get it going again.

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I found a cold saw at an auction and have rebuilt it enough to be usable, but it still needs a new blade guard to clear the larger blade.

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We have an old Gorton knee mill at the space that needs some TLC. The y-axis lead screw is crunching pretty bad and its DRO doesn’t show z, so I want to add that as well.

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And the list goes on…

8. What are three tools you can’t live without?
My mind, my hands, and my pocket knife. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with what’s just sitting around. Car got a flat on soft soil and the jack won’t lift it high enough to change? Try using that load of fire wood to crib it up. The dust collector hose won’t fit the machine? There’s some old packing foam in the trash — cut a doughnut to fit the gap. Tired of bending over to pick up trash in the yard? Split the end of stick, pinch a long screw in the gap, and tape it up — now anything you poke sticks to the screw.

9. Having built, repaired, and recycled computers for years, what new development in personal computing are you most excited about?
None. I’ve spent years programming, building, fixing, and recycling computers. If you hang around me for a few days, you’ll inevitably hear my favorite mantra, “Have I told you? I hate computers.” Years ago I saw a joke listing instructions programmers wished computers had, and my favorite by far was “DMNS — Do what I mean, not what I say.”

I remember talking with my father years ago about the Computer Revolution and came to the conclusion it’s more of an evolution. You don’t see one change, improvement, or idea the suddenly changes everything. What you see is a long list of minor changes and improvements until something new emerges. Tablet computers the latest revolution? Think about the Tandy 100, arguably an early tablet computer but it took a bunch of little things like touchscreens, faster processors, flash memory, and better batteries before it became the tablet computer of today. Personally, I don’t like to try to guess what the next big thing is; I’d rather sit back and watch the technology evolve.

10. As a lifelong Maker, do you remember your first making experience? How did you get started making things?
One of my earliest childhood memories was of my grandparents giving me a box of old cameras I COULD take apart. I had been making a habit of taking apart things my parents were still using just to find out what was inside, how they were made, and what I could do with the parts. Not the best way to learn. Then I discovered everyone in the neighborhood was putting out neat things to take apart every week — I was thrilled. They called it garbage day, but I called it the best day of the week.

Note: To date, I’ve had to clean out the following of all the things I took apart and kept as possibly useful: 75% of my childhood basement, a two-car garage plus storage shed and driveway stacked 2′ deep, a 1,500-square-foot warehouse, a 6,000-square-foot warehouse, that same childhood basement again, and a few storage lockers. Hi, my name is Tom and I’m a junkaholic.

11. What’s your favorite advice for folks who are just getting started?
Ask, look, poke around, take off the cover, find out how it works, how it’s made, and don’t be afraid to ask why they did it that way. The more you know about how things work and why they were made the way they were, the easier it is to make things you want or decide to buy something instead. Almost all my ideas and projects grow out of something I’ve seen or been told about.

12. What do you love most about Milwaukee?
It’s more of a big town that a city. Everything you need is here, from hardware and tools to entertainment and the arts. It just doesn’t feel like Dallas, where I lived just out of college. I remember one day when it took me almost an hour in Dallas traffic to drive the two miles to work. On most days in Milwaukee you can cross town at rush hour in less than 40 minutes. I remember taking an out-of-town visitor for ice cream in Dallas, and he thought I was nuts to drive 30 minutes for a snack. Now I’m less than two minutes from Kopp’s Frozen Custard — way better than ice cream.

13. What’s your favorite Little Pink Trike story?
The whole episode. It’s the perfect description of what I like and what I am. I got together with a bunch of like-minded Makers, took something I had no right trying to use — a toy for three- to five-year-olds — and turned it into something that was fun to build, ride, break, and fix. I used whatever I could scrounge: a lawn tractor transmission, shocks from a go-kart, a motor controller from a pallet jack, and a motor from a winch. I learned a whole lot about high-power wiring, motorcycle steering and suspension, and what goes on inside a lawn tractor transmission — after I broke it, fixed it, broke it, found another, and finally broke that one — and had fun every step of the way.

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Come check out Gralewicz’s giant clock, as well as a whole array of other Maker-made projects and hands-on workshops at Maker Faire Milwaukee, September 26 and 27, at the Wisconsin State Fair Park.