Name: Matt Mead
Makerspace: Internal makerspace at SPR
Day Job: CTO of SPR.com
How did you get started making?
As a kid, I was fascinated by how things were built and how they all fit together. Although I did not have any training as a kid, I tried to accomplish projects with the tools I had at my disposal. As an 8 year old, I remember fixing a wooden shingle on the corner of our house because a piece of siding had fallen out. I was able to sand down a new shingle to the correct width using the cement driveway as my sandpaper and found some nails to nail the board to the house. And I built my first toolbox using some scrap plywood and a wooden dowel I found in my garage. I didn’t have a carpenter’s square and I remember using a cereal box as my square – it turns out that my toolbox was the exact width as a frosted flakes cereal box. These and other early experiences building things made me resourceful and able to do what I needed to accomplish with the tools I had available. As a kid, I did not have access to any lakes, but enjoyed sketched boats and dreamt of someday actually building a boat. As a young adult, I began accumulating tools and building things with an eye toward aesthetics – I love to build beautiful things. I made my dream a reality when I built my first wooden 17” sea kayak. I’m a lifelong learner and as an adult I’ve taken many classes at a local college to learn more about electronics and welding.
What type of maker would you classify yourself as?
When it comes to making, I think of myself as part digital designer (leveraging digital design and manufacturing tools) and part craftsman (still using my hands and basic tools, especially for assembly and finish work), so I call myself a “digital craftsman.” But labels are hard because I have so many interests, and so many aspects are brought into my making such as: woodworking, metalworking, sewing, embroidering, 3D printing, CNC milling, software development and hardware & circuits. I made a commitment to myself to not look to make profit from my makings and keep it as an oasis and source of joy. And I consider myself fortunate to have so much support for my maker addiction from my wife and family as well as my employer, SPR.
So you are an IT consultant, tell us about that.
I have been in consulting for most of my career where I’ve built software solutions for customers. I’m lucky because I experience the same deep satisfaction when I help a customer solve software problem at work as when I’m in my shop as a maker and complete a project.
I’m coming up on 20 years with SPR, a digital tech consultancy, where I’m the Chief Technology Officer. At SPR, we build custom software solutions for businesses and help set the direction of their technological endeavors. As someone who grew up professionally in the software development world, I’m a huge fan of incorporating software into my projects. My love for making has allowed for the creation of our SPR maker space, which we built in our skyrise office in the Willis Tower in Chicago to support our Internet of Things capabilities.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve made?
It is so hard to select a favorite thing. But as someone who dreamt of building boats as a kid, I’d have to say I am most proud of the three sea kayaks and handmade kayak paddles I made. My first inuit-inspired 17” wooden kayak was built using a stitch-and-glue technique using plans from CLC boats. It is my favorite kayak and I still sometimes cannot believe my hands built this beautiful boat and that it floats and cuts through the water so effortlessly! I then built two skin-on-frame kayaks using anthropomorphic measurements and a construction style that goes back centuries with the Inuit people. Anthropomorphic design uses the paddler’s body dimensions to size the kayak design.
I built one anthropomorphic kayak for me and another for my kids, complete with outriggers to keep it stable and upright. The skin-on-frame kayaks have ballistic nylon “skin” that is translucent in the sunlight and allows viewing of the boats’ gorgeous wood ribs. While both boats are a joy to paddle, I love the contrast between the boats: my first wooden stitch-and-glue kayak involved modern CNC cut panels of marine plywood and lots of epoxy, whereas my skin-on-frame kayaks were created from steam-bent green wood using mortise and tenon joints and lashing to hold it together. I learned so much about wood, joints, epoxy, finish techniques and boat hull design from these kayaks.
What if people want to be a tech Maker? Where can they start?
The way I started making and what I’d recommend is to mimic things that you see and that you like, but put your own personal spin on it. And there are two paths, both of which you should try. The first path is to find something that is already built, such as a piece of furniture online or in a store, and reproduce it, but by putting your twist on things. The second path is to find and build a project online, where detailed instructions are provided. When instructions are included, you can consider a stretch project that pushes your comfort zone, based on your available tools and skills. Feel free to wander from the instructions and put a touch of you and your personality into the project.
From an electronics perspective, I always recommend makers get familiar with several microcontroller and small computer platforms as they are inexpensive and extremely capable. There is a bit of a learning curve, but there are also so many projects and great resources online for getting started. I recommend makers start with the Arduino and Particle platforms and once they get some comfort, check out the Raspberry Pi.
More than anything, get some exposure to lots of making disciplines and spend time in areas that bring you joy. The Maker Faires are a great resources to get exposure to what’s happening broadly and Make Magazine is a great way to get project ideas and detailed instructions, too.
And for any makers that feel there is a portion of their project for which they do not have the skills, consider checking out your local maker space in your community for help or to hire affordable experts from around the globe to do a portion of your project for a fixed fee. I’ve used upwork.com, for example, to hire designers when a given project exceeds the time and skills I had available.
What’s something you’d like to make next?
My next project is to convert a manual metal milling machine to be computer controlled. When I’m done, my mill’s metal cutting tool will be able to cut shapes in aluminum and steel based on CAD designs. The mill will allow me to create custom 3D metal parts for my projects. I’m really excited for this project and the expanded metal making capabilities I can combine with 3D printing for my projects!
Any advice for people reading this?
As a maker:
- Expect to fail at times. That is how we learn and as makers we need to embrace these learning opportunities.
- Learn to have an inventor mindset when you encounter issues in life. Rather than having it annoy you, think of how to resolve it or fix it. This is the most basic way to think of new projects and allow your making to improve not only your life, but other people’s lives, as well.
- Try to fix things that are broken before you throw them out and buy a new one – you have nothing to lose if the item is already broken. You will gain tremendous knowledge and your broken item may end up being saved.
- Finally, share your ideas with the world. The more you share, the more you will receive in return – allowing for further growth and learning.