Maker Movement takes hold of region [Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) :: ]
(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 12--The guys at North Street Labs love a challenge, whether it's making an 800-bag, 6-story Doritos vending machine activated by Tweets from above a concert stage or a metal tree sculpture equipped with sensors to translate motion into sounds.
"I used to think I had more limitations and once we get together in our group, we really do anything. It's not even hyperbole," Justin Seemueller said. "Basically, a bunch of creative people working together can do some really amazing things."
Seemueller, Steve Shaffer and Alex Watson are friends and tinkerers who work from a small lab equipped with a 3-D printer, lights and electronics in a Portsmouth apartment. They use equipment like saws and a self-built computer numerical control machine at Watson's garage in Chesapeake. They're regulars at the Red Bull Creation contest and were tapped by a production company to create a giant vending machine for the Doritos' Bold Stage at Austin's South by Southwest festival in March.
They've appeared in tech blogs, Popular Science magazine and recently on the Science Channel's "Outrageous Acts of Science" show.
They don't seek out press but love to wow people with their inventions.
"It's getting easier to make things. That means more people can do it," said founder and CEO Dale Dougherty of Maker Media Inc., which publishes Make magazine. "People started calling it a Maker Movement. It sort of stuck."
While hobby inventors like North Street Labs have always existed, the accessibility of how-to information on the Internet, the increasing affordability of technology, access to tools and a growing online community of people who share project plans or troubleshooting tips are propelling more grass-roots innovation. This Maker Movement is gaining steam in Hampton Roads with the creation of shared workspaces, clubs and maker events. Now, some local public institutions are jumping on board with plans to create fabrication labs or makerspaces, too.
"Makers are a real interesting breed," said Beau Turner, founder of 757 Makerspace, which opened in Norfolk's Ghent neighborhood in September.
The Makerspace is a 6,500-square-foot warehouse equipped with wood shop equipment and table saws, laser cutters, computer numerical control machines, 3-D printers, a welding machine and sewing machines, among other tools. Turner, who has a background in engineering and architecture technology consulting and software development, had spent roughly $12,000 to equip his home workshop and realized a shared workspace with members could allow more affordable access to tools for other tinkerers. He welcomes people who want to come in, check it out and possibly learn something new, particularly with open build nights the first Fridays of the month.
On Saturdays, Makerspace Cadets classes have become popular for ages 7 through 14. Next, Turner would like to develop classes for the high school age group.
Last week, the Makerspace hosted a Portsmouth Schools' maker camp, where students made products, pitched them to outside passersby and tweaked them based on feedback.
Turner estimates at least 100 to 150 people come through in a month between members, guests, event hosting and classes. While the winter was slow, he said the Makerspace is operating in the black with most of the profits going back into the business. He makes a point now to visit one small design- or manufacturing-
related business a week to learn about his neighbors and find partners for new projects.
"We're building the community," Turner said.
Because the Makerspace is essentially a prototyping center, Turner envisions the next big business being conceived or launched there. Additionally, relationships forged among users could also lead to new ideas or better problem solving.
One member makes and sells bamboo bikes. La Tanya Green launched a benefit corporation called Free 2 Be Community that helps displaced workers find jobs making crates from recycled shipping pallets.
"You hear the phrase 'manufacturing is gone.' I don't think that's the case," Turner said. "We were makers before. This area is rich with making in its background and always has been. Now, more people are interested in newer ways of making things."
Deborah Wright, vice president for Thomas Nelson Community College Workforce Development, agreed. Thomas Nelson has been using four 3-D printers and computer-aided drafting in its Imagineering summer camps where teenagers pitch products to a "Shark Tank"-like panel.
"In all of Hampton Roads, but especially the Peninsula, these are children and grandchildren of technicians and engineers who had applied thinking in their homes," Wright said. "We are sitting in a hotbed of innovators here."
As part of a planning study for Thomas Nelson's proposed Advanced Integrated Manufacturing Center to train future industrial workers, the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers, after talking with local employers, recommended the center incorporate a fabrication lab replete with an array of computer-controlled tools like 3-D printers for rapid prototyping, desktop-milling machines and laser cutters. The fab lab, or makerspace, could help entrepreneurs or small businesses launch new products and be the part of the center that resonates with the public.
Hampton and Virginia Beach are also waiting to hear if they'll receive grant funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to set up Massachusetts Institute of Technology-style fab labs near the Peninsula Technology Incubator and on the Tidewater Community College campus, said PTI director Tom Flake. Both fab labs would be open to the general public and entrepreneurs for prototyping and product development.
The do-it-yourself movement is also charting a new path for public libraries as more holistic information centers where users not only consume information but create it.
"We're working to reinvent ourselves so we are useful and relevant to the public," said Clara Hudson, head of technology and collections for the Virginia Beach Public Library system.
Virginia Beach Public Library would like to develop a dedicated makerspace at the Central Library on Virginia Beach Boulevard, she said.
People already use the library for meetings, conducting business and using the Wi-Fi, she said. Why can't it be a place to learn computer-aided design and prototyping, too? The library system just bought three 3-D printers for its programs, Hudson said.
The library system can also put its audio-visual equipment and green screen into the makerspace to allow people to make podcasts or allow businesses to produce YouTube videos, Hudson added. It's still preliminary, but a makerspace could open within a couple of years with a cost $125,000 over multiple years. The library is still deciding what equipment to put in the makerspace.
Another goal is to get a $180,000 Book Espresso Machine for users to print either e-books or to bind and publish their own work, Hudson said.
"I think it's just a changing culture of how people want to use information and how they get it, and libraries want to participate," she said.
On the Peninsula, the Northside Makers show off their crafting or tech projects at Barnes and Noble near Patrick Henry Mall on the second Friday of every month.
Group founder and retired physicist Rickey Johnson, 60, has shown his "brainwave glasses" and tinkers mostly from a home garage. In June, Josh Newell, 33, showed his work toward making an e-cigarette out of a Wii remote case. Newell, a computer programmer, has been into electronics lately but started by fixing items from thrift stores.
"I think there are a lot of creative people here locally that just haven't connected," Johnson said. "I think the more cross-fertilization and creative ideas that can happen here, the better it is for everybody."
From 2009 to 2012, before 757 Makerspace, tech enthusiasts would collaborate and socialize at a 3,800-square-foot hackerspace called 757 Labs in downtown Norfolk. The space had an older Cray supercomputer, video games, computer servers and some woodworking and metalworking tools, said co-founder Ethan O'Toole. Listing 757 Labs on Hackerspaces.org allowed others to come visit from other states and areas, he said. The space charged $50 monthly memberships and had 26 at its peak month, he said.
O'Toole, Turner and several others also helped organize Hampton Roads Mini Maker Faires at the Norfolk Scope in 2012 and 2013 with licensing from Maker Media to showcase local maker talent. Turner said planning is underway for the next Mini Maker Faire in Norfolk this year.
Hobby tinkering in collaboration with others is the normal path for any technology, said Garry Qualls, aerospace engineer and current project manager for NASA's Centennial Challenge. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak presenting the Apple prototype to the Homebrew Computer Club.
While amateur robotics and electronics equipment is getting cheaper, the main force behind innovation is people sharing the hobby together, particularly online where hundreds of developers can contribute to a project, said Qualls, who also tinkers in hobby robotics.
Qualls finds this community part to be essential in innovation challenges, where a community is directed to a problem, or created to solve the problem. The next NASA Centennial Challenge is focused on operating unmanned aircraft safely near manned aircraft.
"I think people have always loved hacking at the edges of whatever the new technologies were," Qualls said. "It's just going to become part of the normal skill set that everyone is expected to develop."
That's what co-founder Jameson Dungan of BioLogik Labs would like to do for biotechnology. BioLogik plans to open a biohackerspace with basic biology and chemistry lab equipment with a gym-like membership at 757 Creative Space on Granby Street in Norfolk later this summer, said Dungan, who works in information technology for Norfolk Public Schools.
BioLogik has a polymerase chain reaction machine that's a "Xerox machine for DNA" to help with testing. He envisions bioartists could create glowing moss of various colors and the space hosting kids' classes like DNA extraction from strawberries. Students can try their hand at science before committing to a field, or people could research local issues like the health of the Chesapeake Bay, he added.
"Nobody's ever really done this sort of thing before," Dungan said, "The whole thing we would like to do with this is make science accessible and available to people."
Dungan started studying science after graduating college with a degree in German and found out about a do-it-yourself movement for biology about six years ago.
He's been in touch with other biohacker labs and has been making some equipment for the lab at 757 Makerspace.
"We should really think of this time as a renaissance that everybody is a maker," Dungan said.
Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com.
A movement gaining popularity due to the accessibility of how-to information on the Internet, the increasing affordability of technology, access to tools and a growing online community of people who share project plans or troubleshooting tips.
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