Making Makers in the Valley

Makerspaces have been popping up in larger cities around the world in recent years, thanks in part to MAKE Magazine, the must-read publication for denizens of the growing maker movement.

Definitions abound for makerspaces and similar fab labs and hackerspaces. They vary from artists’ shared work spaces to high-tech machining, metalworking and electronics labs. Some are clubs of programmers who build robotic devices by writing code and manipulating microcontrollers. Others, like the 40,000-square-foot nonprofit Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, rent stalls to entrepreneurial artisans and offer classes in everything from building bike frames to mold-making and kinetic sculpture.

“Tools and materials and expertise define a makerspace,” said Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE Magazine and creator of its Maker Faire conferences. “In some ways it’s like the old shop class, but more creative and not just mechanical and machine-oriented.”

The early forms of makerspaces are emerging in the Pioneer Valley. Local engineering, computer science and design-oriented students are using the University of Massachusetts’ M5 lab, Hampshire College’s Center for Design and Smith College’s Center for Design and Fabrication. New businesses offer access to specialized equipment and classes, such as Beehive Sewing in Northampton and Art Party Studio in Easthampton.

And, to the delight of local “makers,” Jake Horsey, a Hampshire grad, and Rex Brodie, a UMass alum, are working to build co-working and fabrication shops in Holyoke and Amherst.

In Holyoke, Horsey is helping open a coworking space, which he doesn’t necessarily define as a makerspace. The 2011 Hampshire College graduate and 10 like-minded professionals signed a lease in May for a 16,000-square-foot space in the Wauregan Building on Dwight Street, which they expect to move into in August. Kamil Peters, a local metal sculptor, is a driving force behind the effort. The other lease signers work in areas including metalworking, woodworking, glass blowing, masonry, photography, computer-aided design, tattooing and permaculture. Horsey plans for the space to house the company he co-founded: Co Fab Design, which does design and prototyping work in fields that include consumer product development and industrial machine design.

After working together for a year or more, Horsey said, the crew may open an education-focused community workspace. He envisions creating a not-for-profit entity that offers classes to the public on the equipment in the space, with the assistance of established nonprofits or not-for-profits. The space, which could host festivals and exhibitions, would need outside financial support.

For now, Horsey sees the co-working space—together with a place for his friends to establish themselves in Holyoke—as “a place where you can go to get things made.”

“At this stage, we want to introduce ourselves to the community, make it clear what we’re capable of and set up the initial network and some connections,” Horsey said. “We want to feel that energy kind of build and hopefully be some type of seed to see that [second-phase community workspace] happen.”

Meanwhile, Rex Brodie has been eyeing locations for a Fab Lab Amherst. It would be a design, prototyping and newfangled manufacturing facility in the spirit of fab labs espoused by MIT physicist Neil Gershenfeld.

Brodie wants to model Fab Lab Amherst on the AS220 nonprofit arts center in Providence. He hopes to launch it with partial financial support from the public through crowdsourcing—when people donate funds through websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help start companies—and establish it as a nonprofit organization supported in part by fee-paying members.

Brodie, a 1992 UMass graduate with a background in teaching, woodworking and sculpture, sees Fab Lab Amherst being more “on the artsy side versus the technical side.”

He has incorporated digital fabrication technologies into his artwork and wants to continue using 3D printers, computer-controlled machines and laser cutters. His overarching goal is to bring a wide array of people—including electronics hackers—into a creative environment where they can teach each other and the public how to use the equipment.

“I’d really like it to be this community space where people hang out and get ideas,” he said. He would like to connect it to a coffeehouse and work with local schools.

He said he has sensed “genuine interest” in Fab Lab Amherst in the Valley, and is working on a business plan.

As Horsey and Brodie work to build maker communities in the Valley, they have few makerspace models to emulate outside larger cities.

Dougherty said it’s an “open” question whether makerspaces thrive only in large urban areas, where city dwellers don’t have space in their homes for workshops.

“These things are hard to do anywhere, period,” Dougherty said from his northern California office. “There are a few successes, and there are a lot of people setting them up and trying.”

Molly Rubenstein, the Artisan’s Asylum’s executive director, believes a community of makers has to be in place for a makerspace to work.

“It’s extremely dangerous…to say, ‘OK, here’s what I think a makerspace should be. I’m going to spend a lot of money, build that, and then see who shows up,’” she said.


Ben Einstein had grand plans in 2011 for an industrial building in Holyoke, which he wanted to turn into a Maker College where machinists, computer hackers and fee-paying members weld metal, build robots and feel empowered making things with their hands.

Fast forward two years, and Einstein—a 2008 Hampshire College graduate—is running a business “accelerator” in Boston. With more than $3.5 million from investors and a prototyping shop full of expensive equipment, he is helping launch computer hardware companies that make physical products.

Einstein sees his new venture as an evolution of the Maker College concept. He always intended for the now-defunct Holyoke operation to help entrepreneurs start businesses. But Einstein said he abandoned the Maker College concept after realizing Western Massachusetts wasn’t big enough for the combination makerspace and business accelerator he wanted.

“It would be impossible, to be honest,” he said. It was difficult to raise the $1.5 million he wanted from investors for the Maker College. And he said the volume and motivations of people he would depend on were different in the Holyoke area from those in Boston.

There were not enough people in in the Holyoke area to support the Maker College, he said. A big makerspace in Boston could draw 600,000 people, while one in the Valley would attract closer to 30,000, he said.

Still, Rui Wang, an associate professor in UMass’s computer science department, predicted that it’s only a matter of time before more makerspaces emerge here.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people and they all feel it would wonderful if we had a makerspace or hackerspace in this area,” said Wang, who sells wireless sprinkler controllers and has organized wearable electronics workshops. “You just need new leaders who are passionate about this and can just get it started.”

Tony Maroulis, the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said he’ll do whatever he can to bring makerspaces to downtown Amherst. He envisions shared workspaces with smaller equipment such as sewing machines or woodworking tools.

Maroulis said such spaces could strengthen relations between Amherst and UMass, and help facilitate “dynamic exchanges” between creative people.

Some local entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily identify with the maker movement have started shared workspaces.

Randy Barrios and two friends last August launched Art Party Studio, a co-working space in Eastworks for artists and craftsmen that offers classes and has equipment ranging from easels to a digital photography studio.

“We thought it was a great idea,” Barrios said. “Because how could we afford the space on our own? We couldn’t. And how could we learn and experiment with new tools on our own? We totally couldn’t.”

Barrios and his partner Amy Gardiner have made adjustments as they learn about their customers’ needs. They now offer classes, which they hadn’t planned initially, and earlier this year were tweaking their membership structure.

Tess Poe, the founder of Beehive Sewing on Pleasant Street in Northampton, also said she is still working to find the right mix of classes, workshops and equipment for customers at the sewing workspace and studio.

Poe hopes to eventually start an incubator that helps launch textile-related companies. Yet, she said, it’s not easy for local non-Internet entrepreneurs to attract investors.

“So much of the venture financing here in this area—the Hartford-Springfield region all the way up into Franklin County—is very much technology-based,” she said. “I’m living in the physical world, in the real world, connecting with people and trying to encourage people to create things that actually are tangible, and that’s not an IT-based idea….(But) there’s not a lot of space around here yet, I think, for people to make those investments.”

Some pundits, including economist Jeremy Rifkin, have predicted that the maker movement will change established business, education and manufacturing models in the United States.

Dougherty, though, said he doesn’t see the maker movement spurring a new era of small-scale manufacturing—not yet.

“Right now making is a revolution in prototyping, in being able to make one of something, which fills a wide range of interesting uses,” he said. “I think we’re going to move from prototyping to small-scale, and then we’ll see what the market looks like beyond small-scale.”

Eric Jensen manages Smith College’s Center for Design and Fabrication, where biology, engineering, physics and astronomy students use fabrication and machining tools.

“I encounter these students today, and they have never picked up a screwdriver,” Jensen said. “They don’t have any experience tactically with the physical world, how things are put together. They’re truly consumers. So what we’re trying to do is…just give them some visibility…make them aware that you can make stuff.”

Jensen said that sense of reward is likely driving the maker movement, as is the ubiquity of computing. Makerspaces often have computer-numerical-controlled machines that are easier for computer-savvy people to use than the manual machines that can take years to master.

“People are very comfortable with computing technology today, and the computer has kind of invaded this craft space, all this technology, and it makes it very accessible,” Jensen said.

Advancements in 3D printing are also helping the maker movement. While such machines were only used by industrial manufacturers 25 years ago, now people can buy low-end 3D printers for under $1,000.

Still, people like T. Baird Soules, the director of UMass’ M5 makerspace for computer and electrical engineering students, said the movement needs a major push.

“What the movement needs is someone like an Andrew Carnegie,” Soules said. Carnegie, a late 19th-century industrialist and philanthropist, founded Carnegie Mellon University and funded local libraries across the country.

“I think that the makerspace is the public library of the 21st century,” Soules said. “It will move quickly, I think, once people can see what the possibilities are.”•

Author: Emelie Rutherford

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