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Making a Makerspace

With equipment and expertise to share, the All Hands Active makerspace in Ann Arbor serves tinkerers of all ages.
Creating a space for innovation and invention in Kalamazoo

Afew years ago Al Holloway came across a copy of MAKE: magazine, a publication featuring projects as diverse as creating animatronic crafts to building tables with two-by-fours, and thought, “I want to do all these things!” The magazine was the Kalamazoo man’s first encounter with the concept of a “makerspace” — a community site furnished with the equipment, resources and collective knowledge to help innovators, tinkerers and others tackle creative projects.

Now Holloway, who works as the manager of technical resources at the Air Zoo, is the president of the Kalamazoo Innovation Initiative (KII), a nonprofit created in May with the encouragement of Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell and with the mission of opening a makerspace by the end of 2016.

If activity in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Detroit is any indication, Kalamazoo is due for a makerspace. Grand Rapids has two makerspaces: GR Makers, which boasts an 8,000-square-foot facility near downtown and the slogan “It’s co-working with toys,” and The Geek Group, which has a 43,000-square-foot facility and serves as a science center, makerspace and media company providing instructional videos online.

Ann Arbor-area residents have access to Makerworks, a 14,000-square-foot facility with tools and education in metal, electrical circuits, woodworking and crafts such as sewing, embroidery and fiber arts. The area also has another makerspace, All Hands Active, as well as the Ann Arbor District Library’s Secret Lab, created in partnership with the University of Michigan for children ages 6 and older.

Detroit has several makerspaces, including Mt. Elliott Makerspace, TechShop Detroit, OmniCoreDetroit, the HYPE Makerspace within the Detroit Public Library’s teen center, and i3, which bills itself as the area’s largest community-run DIY (do-it-yourself) workshop.

And then there are annual Mini Maker Faires — such as the one held in Grand Rapids or Maker Faire Detroit, hosted by The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn — that feature hundreds of makers and their wares, ideas, inventions and solutions, from flame shooters to solar-powered mechanical sculptures to bikes that look like cupcakes.

With more than 120 community-supported Mini Maker Faires in the United States and worldwide, according to, it’s safe to say the maker movement is having its day.

Making a makerspace

But what exactly makes a makerspace?

“When people think of a makerspace, a lot of times they think of a ‘FabLab’ with 3D printers, laser printers, vinyl cutters and so on,” Holloway says. “There are different types.”

Makerspaces are generally supported by memberships — people join and pay a monthly or an annual fee to have access to equipment, resources and like-minded individuals with knowledge and expertise. Most are run by nonprofit organizations and supported by membership fees and donations, and many teach technical skills. However, some for-profit makerspaces also exist, such as the California-based franchise TechShop.

As Holloway sits with two other KII board members, Amy Braat and Jason Preuss, they discuss the KII’s plans to create a Kalamazoo makerspace. Although they decline to give a figure for what it would take to start a makerspace, they describe their desired facility as one that would accommodate metalwork, woodwork, fiber arts and maybe even a kitchen.

“Sometimes you just want to make something big, but you live in an apartment,” says Preuss, who works as a Web development specialist at the W.E. UpJohn Institute for Employment Research. “You can’t bring a long-arm quilter into an apartment.”

Holloway says the term “maker” is meant to be broad. “We know people who do all kinds of things — weave, knit, quilt, spin yarn and weld,” Holloway says. Many of those people are members of the Kalamazoo Makers Guild, an organization founded by Kevin Wixson in 2011 that now has more than 250 members. Since its inception, the Kalamazoo Makers Guild has met monthly, most recently in space provided by the Air Zoo, where members show off their work, share ideas and network with other people who love to craft things with their own hands.

In fact, many of those behind the KII are members of the Kalamazoo Makers Guild, including Holloway, who was involved with the guild when Mayor Hopewell returned from a White House-sponsored Maker Faire in Washington, D.C., and contacted him and Wixson about starting a makerspace in Kalamazoo.

“I was first exposed to makerspaces four years ago and I knew we should have one of these in Kalamazoo,” says Hopewell. “In 2014, I went to the White House Maker Faire and joined the Mayors Maker Challenge to take on the mission of enabling creativity, ideation and innovation in our cities. When I came back, I brought some people together to discuss it and discovered that Kalamazoo already had a maker movement, but it was still trying to find its place.”

Accessibility is key

Hopewell was “all fired up about the possibility of a makerspace in Kalamazoo,” Holloway says, and perhaps rightly so. In an April article titled “How Makerspaces Help Local Economies,” The Atlantic reported that the “so-called ‘maker movement’ is arguably a big and important development in the American economy.”

That article and a 2012 story in The Atlantic, “Mr. China Comes to America,” reveal that the explosion of the availability of computer-compliant tools such as 3D printers in the United States affects more than just our artistic identities. It is shifting our cultural relationship with manufacturing.

“The tools to create enterprises — and especially physical products — have become accessible to just about anyone,” John Tierney wrote in “How Makerspaces Help Local Economies.” Quoting the CEO of The Grommet, a company that launches maker products, Tierney wrote, “And that’s changing how companies are getting formed.”

“There’s always a pendulum swinging,” Preuss says. “For awhile, you did not want to get involved with manufacturing. The party line was, ‘You need to go to college, get a four-year degree and become an accountant.’”

But not everyone’s ability aligns with accounting. Some people are born to make stuff.

The push for people to attend college has created a shortage of skills in fields that don’t require a four-year degree, Holloway says. Welders, electricians and HVAC workers need training courses, and those courses are becoming less and less available, he says.

“All these things that we take for granted, like heating and cooling systems, someone has to install and maintain them,” he says.

Letting kids tinker

One of the big aims of creating a Kalamazoo makerspace, Holloway says, is to show kids legitimate career paths, jobs that are highly skilled and well compensated.

Toward that end, the Air Zoo’s new strategic plan includes creating a “tinkering space,” a sort of makerspace for children. Air Zoo President and CEO Troy Thrash, who previously worked with a maker group in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when he was executive director of the Da Vinci Science Center there, says if the Air Zoo’s tinkering space is a success, it’s a natural leap for those kids to become part of a makerspace when they are older.

“We need to create opportunities for kids to get the experience so many of us had when we were young to build things and work with our hands,” says Thrash, adding that the Air Zoo is moving toward educational programming to boost technical knowledge and position kids for careers not only in aerospace but also in manufacturing or health care.

This educational component also happens to be one of KII’s core missions. Preuss says a makerspace can be a community classroom, especially for students in the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency’s Education for Employment program.

“KRESA’s Education for Employment program is designed so high school students can see what careers are all about. It gets pretty close to the action sometimes,” says Preuss, adding that a makerspace would be another place for students to explore potential careers.

Holloway already knows about this program from experience. He teaches an Introduction to Aviation class at the Air Zoo through Education for Employment. In Holloway’s class, students go through a survey of potential careers in aviation such as flight, maintenance, engineering and airport operations. They also take an online college course. If students start the program in their junior year of high school and complete two years in the aviation technology program, they can graduate from high school with nine college credits under their belt.

If that’s the direction KRESA’s program keeps going, Holloway says, a makerspace would be “beautifully positioned” to participate with the organization as a teaching partner.

Preuss agrees. “We’ve got a lot of smart people in Kalamazoo. A makerspace could bring them together and see what ideas they come up with.”

There’s also the hope that promising minds won’t need to leave Kalamazoo to do something cool. “You can do something cool right here,” Preuss says.

“Keep the talent here,” Holloway says.

“And develop the talent here, too,” Braat adds.

A longtime engineer who studied mechanical engineering at WMU, Braat says she is concerned about the lack of hands-on training in schools where woodshop, metalworking and welding programs have disappeared.

“(Engineering) graduates are starting jobs never having built anything,” she says. “If you’ve never built anything, how are you supposed to design something? We want to give people real-world training so they have marketable skills to bring to the workplace.”

Braat is a program manager at Burke E. Porter Machinery, in Grand Rapids, and runs a side business on her property in Dorr that is basically a mini-makerspace. In addition to tools such as a laser engraver and 3D printer, she and her husband, Kevin, have computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machinery that uses computer instructions to cut materials. People hire the Braats to make devices for short-run manufacturing, and the two also do custom woodworking and other crafts.

One reason Braat joined the KII board was to motivate girls and women to think about engineering as a career.

“A lot of it comes down to exposure,” she says, noting children need be exposed to a wider variety of career options to know what options exist.

“It’s not even a matter of confidence,” Braat says, “just one of knowing your options. Kids say they want to be a doctor because they see it on TV, but there is so much more that you can do for a living. You don’t see engineering on TV, but it is actually very cool.”

Holloway agrees. “My dad had a toolbox in the garage, and we had full access to it,” he says. “We didn’t have to ask. We just went out there and took our bikes apart. It was trial and error.”

Preuss cites his own 11-year-old daughter as part of his inspiration to create a makerspace. “I don’t know what she’s going to do when she grows up,” he says, “but I want her to be exposed to the thinking ‘Hey, you have an idea? Well, you can make it.’”

So far, the makerspace that the KII is working toward is planned for members ages 18 and older. Children would be allowed to participate if accompanied by an adult member through family memberships, and there are plans for programs designed for youth groups such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and technical education classes for high school students.

Overcoming obstacles

This isn’t the first time there’s been an effort to create a makerspace in Kalamazoo. In 2011, Second Wave Media reported that initial planning and facility leasing for a makerspace called Xipherspace was underway, but both Holloway and Preuss say they believe those efforts faded away. (Attempts by Encore to reach the principals involved in Xiphersphere were unsuccessful.) Last year Encore talked to Fido Motors owner and president Jeb Gast about his own plans for a makerspace in the old Star Brass Works foundry, at 1415 Fulford St., but so far the project, named Jericho, remains unveiled, suggesting there are complexities to getting these spaces from concept to reality.

Sometimes something as simple as choosing a name stalls an initiative. The KII first named its potential makerspace Space Station Kalamazoo, but, because of confusion with other establishments with a space theme, decided to give it a different name, which has yet to be decided. But the biggest obstacle in creating a makerspace is money.

“The obvious roadblock to a makerspace is funding,” Thrash says.

Determining the cost of creating a makerspace is hard to do. KII representatives declined to name a figure, saying that the cost depends on the location chosen for the space as well as what equipment is donated or bought. The Detroit Public Library’s HYPE Makerspace was created with a $30,000 grant and has an annual budget of $11,000 for staffing and maintenance and generally serves teens by providing electronics (soldering, arduino, raspberry pi), sewing, 3D printing, silk-screen printing, bike repair, paper crafts and general crafting. On the flip side, in August, East Lansing Public Library officials discussed creating a permanent makerspace with its community’s Downtown Development Authority that had a startup cost of roughly $1 million.

Preuss says that’s why collaboration is critical to creating a makerspace in Kalamazoo. “It’s a coordination issue,” he says. “You need a bunch of people to jump at the same time.”

KII members say plenty of local businesses are excited about the idea of a makerspace, but, when it comes to making a commitment, most businesses grow shy. “They’re inherently conservative,” Preuss says. “They say, ‘Get that thing built and we’ll be there.’ Or, ‘Show us business support and we’ll help you out.’”

Seeking local support

There has been some local industry support, however. Humphrey Industries donated some financing to the project, and Stryker donated a 3D printer. A family-owned jewelry shop donated all of its equipment when the shop closed, and the Air Zoo is storing the KII’s equipment until it finds a facility.

Funding to lease or buy a facility is the last piece to fall into place for the KII. Once the operation is established, the leaders say, they are confident that with revenue from individual memberships (priced at about $49 a month) and other forms of support, including student and corporate memberships, they will be able to keep the makerspace running.

“Once it’s built, it can be pretty easy to sustain. It’s just getting over that big first step,” Preuss says.

Currently under consideration are buildings in the Rivers Edge area, an up-and-coming part of downtown Kalamazoo that is easily accessible to people from all over the area. But it takes time to find the right facility and create a makerspace.

Steve Teeri, an Ann Arbor librarian who was instrumental in bringing the Detroit Public Library’s teen HYPE Makerspace to fruition in 2012, says that it took 18 months of planning and obtaining a grant to get the makerspace from idea to reality.

When HYPE Makerspace finally opened, “the response from our teens was phenomenal,” Teeri says. “We had girls doing robotics and boys sewing, all without us trying to push them toward one activity or another.”

One girl, he says, sewed a denim vest for her cat and then 3D-printed a few nautical-themed buttons to sew onto it. Victory for all! (Except the cat.)

Hopewell says it’s not a question of if a makerspace will be created, but when. “I fully believe this is going to happen,” he says. “It is taking a little longer than we hoped but it is getting very close.”

When it does, Holloway sees the makerspace as a connector to those people at Western Michigan University or Kalamazoo Valley Community College who are versed in job opportunities and the crafting of careers. If someone invents a new device and wants to patent it, for instance, Holloway wants to be able to direct that person to someone in the community who understands intellectual property rights.

“The high-level vision of this place is a focal point,” he says. “Someone could make the next big thing, and it could be built right here in Kalamazoo.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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