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They Made It!

Dan Wilkins is the project manager for Kzoo Makers, a makerspace near downtown Kalamazoo.
After a long gestation, Kalamazoo makerspace is a reality

A loud rumble fills a frigid warehouse at 1102 E. Michigan Ave. as master woodcraftsman Don Batts leans over a wood jointer, making a twisted board flat with every pass across the circular blades. Helping him on his woodworking project is Rick Briscoe.

“What they’re doing …” Dan Wilkins says, then pauses as Batts starts up the jointer. “What they’re doing is making a lot of noise,” Wilkins quips when it’s quiet again.

”We’re good at that!” replies Briscoe, who is helping Batts craft a workbench for Kzoo Makers, a community-based workspace, or “makerspace,” where members share equipment and knowledge.

The workspace opened its doors in September after prolonged effort by its nonprofit parent organization, the Kalamazoo Innovation Initiative, to create a makerspace in the area. Wilkins is the current project manager for Kzoo Makers, Batts is the group’s woodworking “zone leader,” and Briscoe is a member of the makerspace.

The woodshop takes up only a section of a warehouse that, if things go according to plan, will also house diesel mechanic training, metal-working, tooling, and screen-printing programs. The woodshop alone has everything one would need to turn rough-cut lumber into finished furniture.

On the other side of a breezeway, there’s a 3-D printing area with seven large printers; an 80-watt laser cutter that makes everything from beer caddies to etchings and engravings; a conference table; and an open classroom with a projector, white board and individual workstations. A virtual reality system sits against the opposite wall of the huge room, and down a hallway are smaller areas that house a video production room, electronics room and craft room where a recent polymer clay event was attended by individuals ages 8 to 60.

There’s also a room where regular classes are held on how to program the Raspberry Pi, a tiny, affordable computer that can, for example, be put inside a robot.

Supported by members

Currently, Kzoo Makers’ operating costs run about $3,000 per month, a sum nearly covered by the organization’s 52 members, who pay for memberships ranging from lifetime ($4,200) to all-hours ($200 per month) to regular ($50 per month). Junior memberships run $35 per month, while day passes are available for $20.

Near the 3-D printers, some beautifully turned dowels produced by Batts sit on a table, effects of his recent foray into Computer Numerical Control machinery, which he’s teaching himself to use. CNC machinery can cut materials such as wood, plastics and even steel, doing what used to be painstakingly done by hand with such tools as routers.

It took Batts 15 minutes to make his dowels on the CNC machines. “It would take you all day to do that by hand,” says Wilkins.

Batts purchased two CNC machines for himself after he suffered a shoulder injury. While most of the equipment in the makerspace belongs to individual members, all of it is available to any member, once properly trained to use it.

Most machinery is oversized, in keeping with Wilkins’ plans for the space. For example, while some people have a 6- or 8-inch jointer in their home workshop, the makerspace has a 16-inch jointer.

“We’re trying to make every area into a place where people who have their own equipment at home still want to come,” says Wilkins.

When he first heard about plans for a makerspace through his involvement with the Kalamazoo Makers Guild, he noticed that the focus was on training youth, developing curriculum and “doing a lot of things for the community.” Those activities are important, he says, but he emphasized that member support is a top priority for him right now.

The 38-year-old Wilkins, son of an Army officer, has a background in production management and was retired after 20 years working for water heater producer Bradford Whites Corp. when he heard about the Kalamazoo Innovation Initiative’s plans for a makerspace. The effort had stalled over finding a facility and financing.

Wilkins, who has been working for 3½ years toward a college degree in computer engineering at Western Michigan University, had what lots of people didn’t have: free time.

He also had money to invest, so he used his time to hunt down a facility and some of his retirement savings to pay the first six months of rent for Kzoo Makers.

Helpful partnership

Perhaps the biggest boon to his hunt was running into Mike Cunningham, a diesel mechanic with 45 years of experience, who wanted to buy a building, use part of it for diesel machinery training and fill the rest with renters.

The two started looking at places together and found one down the road from Cunningham’s house. “I’m not gonna lie — that part is nice,” says Cunningham, laughing.

The northern 25 feet of the building is designated for Cunningham’s diesel training school, which he hopes will include forklift training, air-brake training, Class B Commercial Driver License (CDL) training for driving buses and dump trucks, and heavy-duty-equipment training.

Cunningham had been looking for a facility for six years before he met Wilkins.

“The only reason I got a space is because of Dan,” says Cunningham, who purchased the building last August. “Nothing would be possible if he weren’t here.”

“Dan’s the man making it happen,” agrees KII Board President Al Holloway, who has been working to bring a makerspace to Kalamazoo from its inception.

When Wilkins and Cunningham found their current warehouse, which had been owned by a repossession business, “the rooms were like a giant trash can,” says Wilkins.

At first, Wilkins concentrated on filling the “clean” side, installing 3-D printers, the Raspberry Pi room, and a crafting room because, as he says, “that’s a makerspace.”

Toward the end of December, members started on the woodworking area, bringing in machinery one piece at a time. About 2,000 feet of the warehouse is cordoned off for local bronze artist Joshua Diedrich, who rents a studio there (see Encore, May 2017).

There’s also a 5-ton overhead crane near the welding zone. “You might put your belt buckle on there,” suggests Wilkins.

“We’ll swing you around,” jokes Cunningham.

Wilkins, who acts as the chief operating officer for the KII, is currently working with Kzoo Makers’ zone leaders to develop training in their specific areas. While certain lessons on the machinery could take up to 1½ hours to be introduced, Wilkins wants to see those lessons packaged into 15-minute segments.

As for the community outreach that was part of the KII’s original vision, 10 Boy Scouts recently created pinewood derby cars on-site. With an instructor and a parent standing next to them, they got a 15-minute training session and then operated a bandsaw by themselves.

In February, the makerspace hosted a public event assembling nest boxes — essentially large birdhouses — for native bluebirds.

The makerspace leaders also have plans to produce a giant Adirondack chair with the Kzoo Makers logo on it. The chair will be a symbol of what the Kzoo Makers are up to — crafting new projects and making new things.

“Wherever we go,” says Wilkins, “it will be a free sign for us.”

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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