Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

100,000 Garages

October 2009

By Mike Gould

Make Magazine is the Popular Mechanics (PM) magazine for the 21st century. Like PM, it is filled with how-to's and articles about tools. Unlike PM, it is dedicated to the concept of open source software and focuses on sustainability, rolling your own computer-controlled anything (garden watering system, solar-powered hot water for your home or CNC routing machines), and general "tool competency and how to attain it".

I love it, and I am privileged to have an article of mine included in the next issue (all about the laser lightshows I build into lunchboxes - long story). But the coolest aspect of Make is that it inspires communities, something I don't recall ever hearing about related to PM. One such community is the group of Makers I belong to, and that is our topic today.

It Takes a Village Eating Lunch
Our story begins at another little group I belong to, A2B3. This stands for Ann Arbor Bi Bim Bop and is a group of digerati who gather at a local eatery every Thursday Noon for Asian food, camaraderie and gossip about who is doing what with which technology. Edward Vielmetti started this about three years ago, and I have been a member for around two of those years. It's a great place to meet interesting people and that is where I learned of the local Makers group.

The group is called GO Tech, and it meets the second Tuesday of the month at a local metal shop at 7pm. Details are on the group's site, URL below.

The group describes itself on its website:

"GO Tech (formerly NotBAGO) is a meeting for Ann Arbor (MI) area readers of Make Magazine, Circuit Cellar, Home Shop Machinist, Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, slashdot, etc. That is, people who are interested in and make things using technology, whether that's a metal-cutting lathe or a Python script. A kind of generalized mixture of CerealBar, DorkBot, Oxford Geek night, and Portland Machinist Guild. We share projects, information about tools and ideas, and connect with like-minded people. Everyone is welcome."

Lasers in the Mist
As we had just finished building our laser display devices (for an open-source/science fiction convention called Penguicon - yet another long story I'll get to eventually), my partner Wayne Gillis and I decided that we should attend the next meeting and show off our inventions.

And so we did. We shared the stage with a developer of high-density epoxy, a guy who machines miniature tools, and an inventor of a steam-powered motorcycle. We showed off the lasers (got an audible "Ooooh" the first time we fired one up), and had a great time.

As an added bonus, the publisher of Make Magazine, Dale Dougherty, was there, talking up Maker Faire, the big expo in San Francisco. He showed us photos and videos and got us all fired up about having our own event in the Ann Arbor area.

Mini Maker Faire 2009
And so we did. Three months later, and we had our own Mini Maker Faire on August 29, setting a land speed record for the complicated-expo-pulled-off-successfully-in-the-shortest-possible-time event. This also involved a last-minute change of venue to the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds, where we packed building A from 10am to 5pm. This was billed as a "Mini" faire, as this was a test run, with a much larger event planned for next summer.

The success of the Faire was due to the talents of a dedicated team (Jim Deakins, Dale Grover, Adam Hitchcock, and Bob Stack), helpful sponsors (AnnArbor.com, A2 MechShop LLC, Current Motor Company, TubeClock.com, Dale Wheat, Modati, a2geeks, The Center for Entrepreneurship - The University of Michigan, and PeopleBacon), and around 30 exhibitors (too many to list - see the website).

With very little publicity, we managed to attract around 400 people, mostly families, who had a great time checking out robots, the cupcake car, an Etch-a-Sketch controlled by a Wii, the vortex cannon that shot two-foot smoke rings, and our lasers, set up in a corner surrounded by black curtains. A particularly popular area was the "Learn to Solder" section, where a dozen or so soldering stations were set up, all busy with (mostly) kids learning to solder circuit boards, creating "Wee Blinkies" with blinking LEDs on them. If there is one tool you really need to master to get seriously into DIY projects, it is soldering, and these kids and their parents took away a valuable skill from their experience here. Photos are available on Flickr and my site, URLs below.

Make in America
All very well and good, but what is the business connection? Simply put, the attendees (especially the kids) were shown that you can build really interesting things in your basement or garage. My feeling is that what is going to save the industries of the US is not massive efforts to shore up existing dinosaurs, but a crowd of nimble mammals developing ideas while puttering about with their mini-lathes, CNC mills and, yes, soldering irons. This country was founded on entrepreneurship, nurtured by an army of people who know how to make things, whether with computer, screwdriver, or bench grinder.

Here is a relevant quote from the Make Magazine Blog:

Perhaps the most interesting question in [last year's] presidential debate was a question asked near the end by Tom Brokaw...

"Should we fund a Manhattan-like project that develops a [huge enterprise] to deal with global energy and alternative energy or should we fund 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?"

... It is an interesting question about where we should look for alternative energy technologies and solutions. A politic answer would say that the United States should support massive scale projects along with many, many small projects. However, the government may not have the resources or the will to drive large-scale projects, especially given the economy. So, a lot is going to depend on people working in 100,000 or more garages, probably with little funding or support.

- Dale Dougherty, Editor and Publisher, Make Magazine

So get out in your garage and start something!

GO Tech:
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/notbago/

My photos of my first GO Tech meeting:
http://mondodyne.com/1gotech/

Maker Faire:
http://makerfaire.com/bayarea/2009/

My photos of Mini Maker Faire:
http://mondodyne.com/1mmf/

Mini Maker Faire:
http://www.a2makerfaire.com/

Flickr Photos:
http://www.flickr.com/groups/a2makers/

Mike Gould, is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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