Front Range Makers Get It Done The DIY Way

8386427543_f5c2c70b2c_bThere’s a grassroots movement going on here. Have you noticed? While the majority of us appear to be obsessed with celebrity bling and baby bumps, there are groups of hobbyists, tinkers, students and visionaries who are getting together and reclaiming the idea of “making things” for themselves. They are challenging our status as mere consumers and becoming hands-on producers. They are the Makers, and this is the Maker movement. From London to Longmont, these free spirits are making us rethink how innovation happens, and how things – the objects we use every day – are made.

The Maker community has been a cultural phenomenon since the first hackerspaces, workshops and fab labs appeared around 2006. These community work spaces have become the hubs for a growing number of “hackers” who are innovating off the grid, in a new collaborative model that is all about sharing ideas, resources and knowledge. The movement embraces new technologies along with the traditional, resulting in intriguing hybrids, such as textiles with embedded digital components.

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2010, Dale Dougherty, the founder and editor of Make Magazine and the first Maker Faire, said that “making things” and shaping the world around us was part of our national culture. “We need to teach kids to be makers of things instead of just consumers of things,” he said, extolling the virtues of discovery through playful experimentation. He recalled thinking that, with all the different technophiles, artists, hackers and crafters who were reading his magazine, “Wouldn’t if be fun to put all these people together” to see what happens?

Thus was born the very first Maker Faire in 2006 in San Mateo, California. Now in its eighth year, the flagship Faire brings in tens of thousands of attendees each year. There are now over 120 Maker Faires internationally, including this fall’s local debut of Mini Maker Faire in Loveland on Saturday, October 5.


It’s Right Here, Right Now.


Makers hard at work at Longmont’s new hackerspace, Tinkermill.

There are Maker meetups all across the nation. At Nerd Nite Detroit, they call it Hacknologic (“Nerd It, Make it, Wire It, Smash it, Glue It.”) In Dallas, they are presenting a Space Hacker workshop for people interested in working in the emerging citizen space industry. The Denver Makers group, which started in 2009, sees up to 50 people at its regular meetings. Co-founder Mike Stanczyk, a programmer by profession, says that the Denver Makers has even had an economic impact on the community. “We’ve seen many new companies get started with makers and the Club Workshop (Denver hackerspace). We also have seen many products launched on Kickstarter, successfully and not. Many people can’t find a service or product they want, at a price they can afford, so they make it themselves and offer it.”

Assistance and support are offered at Tinkermill meetings.

Assistance and support are offered at Tinkermill meetings.

Longmont’s maker community is coming together at Tinkermill, a new 3,000-square-foot hackerspace in the Twin Peaks Mall. The group has only been together for a few months and is in the early stages of building out its workspace and taking tool donations. Tinkermill hosts an open house every Tuesday night from 7 to 9 pm to introduce the new space and meet future members. Lindsay Levkoff, who co-founded the group with tech executive Scott Converse, says, “Right off the bat, we had ten people coming to our meetings, then fifteen, then twenty. So we said ‘Let’s get going.’”

Levkoff is also the Director of Education for Sparkfun Electronics, a local company that employs up to 140 people “and 40 dogs,” she says with a laugh.


There Will Be Sparks

Pop-ups + Paper Electronics Class at SparkFun.

Pop-ups + Paper Electronics Class at SparkFun.

SparkFun Electronics is a perfect example of what can happen when things go a little off the rails. To a hacker, it’s what you do after a setback that really matters.

Years ago, CU electrical engineering student Nathan Seidle was working on a project when he accidently “fried” one of the chips on a circuit board. No circuit board, no project. Searching for a replacement, Seidle realized that it wasn’t so easy to find and buy just a few electronic parts. Most suppliers sold directly to manufacturers in large lots. Pictures and information were hard to come by, too.

Seidle figured there must be plenty of other students, hobbyists and inventor-types who faced the same problem. In 2003 he launched SparkFun Electronics from his bedroom. (Seidle has been quoted as saying “I’m having the most fun when the sparks are flying.”) The company has occupied an industrial space in Gunbarrel since 2008, but is now poised to move to an 85,000-square-foot facility on Highway 52. Annual sales for 2013 are forecast to be around $31 million.

SparkFun is a fascinating online retail store bursting with all the electronic pieces and parts you need to make a frequency generator, a robot or a cool LED thingamajig. Product information, pictures and instructions are easy to find. Buyers can be anybody from a six-year-old beginner to a NASA-level engineer who is prototyping a project. What they all share is the drive to learn and create. “People feel empowered. They find an inspiration and they want to do something about it,” says Lindsay Levkoff. “It used to be difficult to even get a project started. We are helping to level that playing field by providing the pieces and the knowledge.”

Find instruction plus the pieces to make your project work at SparkFun.

Find instruction plus the pieces to make your project work at SparkFun.

Down on the production floor, a robot nicknamed Marvin Starscream is placing miniscule electronic parts onto a pre-printed circuit board at dizzying speed. When finished, the circuit board will be packaged as a kit with instructions and shipped out to customers as far away as Antarctica. “Our customers are just about everywhere,” Levkoff says. “And it’s not just an urban phenomenon – there are a lot of applications of this technology to rural living, too.”

SparkFun is presenting a year-long “National Tour 2013,” a mobile outreach program taking learning workshops to schools all across the country. Locally, the St. Vrain School District has scheduled seven stops for its students. The company is also the presenting sponsor of the NoCo Mini Maker Faire.


Come To The NoCo Mini Maker Faire

Anticipation is growing for the first NoCo Mini Maker Faire, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 5 from 10 am to 6 pm at the Rocky Mountain Center for Innovation and Technology (formerly Agilent Technologies Campus) at 815 14th St SW in Loveland. “This is the first major fair in Colorado,” says event producer Elise Weiland. “It is designed to appeal to all ages and skill levels. We are organized around the idea that innovation and creativity are lifelong pursuits that we should be involved in throughout our life.” Weiland says they are expecting around 5,000 people to attend this year’s Faire.

Maker groups will be providing hands-on demonstrations, ranging from soldering workshops to robotics and textiles. You might even see a bit of Steampunk fashion here and there. “The Sound Puddle will be very popular,” Weiland says. “It’s an interactive environment that generates sounds based on your movements. And kids of all ages are going to like the Nerdy Derby slot car track. You can make your own car and then race it against others. Last year’s winning car was made of chocolate!”

– Story by L. L. Charles – Tinkermill photos by Paul Litman  – SparkFun photos provided by Sparkfun Electronics