Becoming a Maker

I love creating things, and always have. But for most of my life, the things I made were very abstract and had little or no physical substance. Since I was a kid, it’s been in the world of software, and to a lesser extent, writing. I have also created visual art for years, on and off, much of it photography. And over the years I helped to host a number of Burning Man theme camps and regional events; in other words, making experiences. Plus there’s the talk I recently gave, which was an intense month-long creative project prior to giving the presentation itself at BIL.

There’s very little physicality to any of that. I’m not entirely sure why, but that’s how it always was for me. But this has begun to change. Increasingly I want to create tangible things. Actual things, sophisticated things that can interact with the world dynamically. Things that are amazing.

I first saw this incredible robotic rickshaw at Burning Man 2002. No idea who made it.

I’m drawn towards the crux of creativity where art and engineering are one: techne, as the ancient Greeks put it. For example, I’m inspired by Lindsay’s robotic giraffe. It is a brilliant, beautiful creation that is so much more than a sculpture–and so much more than a mere robot. Another (much more humble) example of techne is my Purkyně hallucination device. It is engineering that creates an artistic experience; in this case a machine that paints images and patterns onto your visual perception from nothing more than blinking white lights.

I love this stuff. To me, engineering and art should never have been divorced from one another as they normally are today. It’s all of a piece in my mind. And I’m not alone; there are others out there who create techne. A whole subculture, actually. They’re called makers.

Makers are nothing new; there have always been people who like to create things in the broadest sense, for all kinds of reasons… woodworkers, blacksmiths or sculptors; engineers, tinkerers or hackers. But there are more recent developments that have drawn me in. The advent of extremely cheap physical computing was the first attractor. I could take my long experience in software and begin to apply it to sensing and affecting the physical world. And spend little more than $30 to get started… that’s revolutionary.

I taught myself to program the Arduino, and over time, learned some basic electronics and taught myself how to solder electronic components together. In this way I began to let software out of its magical virtual box, extending it to touch the world. And it was good. Really good.

I found all kinds of articles online written by makers describing different projects. I kept dreaming up new things to create. I read one book after another. But I began to run into some hard limits. You can only get so far with software and electronics by themselves. Things aren’t made out of computers, they are controlled by computers. You need to be able to bend metal. Cut wood or acrylic. Print plastic. Paint and engrave surfaces. I couldn’t really do any of this, not for real, and I wasn’t seeing myself spending six figures building a truly universal workshop where I could.

But Heather, as usual, found the perfect solution. She discovered Makerplace, a 14,000 sq. ft. facility for makers in San Diego. The idea is that they offer a collection of powerful (and very expensive) industrial machinery that you can use whenever you like, for anything you want, once you join and become a member. We went to their grand opening and took the tour of the facility.

The Makerplace woodworking shop.

It’s impressive. There’s a metal shop, a wood shop, ventilated paint booth and a welding bay. There have a CNC mill, a CNC router, a sand blaster, drill presses, bandsaws and a 3D printer. They have a room full of industrial sewing and embroidering machines, an electronics room and another room with industrial laser cutters. There’s a vinyl printer, a silk screener and a PCB mill. Just tons of stuff. Pretty much any major piece of equipment you’d need to make… anything. Any kind of engineering or art you can dream up.

Walking around Makerplace and looking at all the tools and machines really got me thinking about all the projects I could take on… it seemed limitless. So I decided to join. It’s a little expensive, but I reckon that if I use it at least 8 hours a month, it’s worth it.

This world calls for constant learning. There’s always something new to learn. Heather got me a subscription to Make and even bought me a couple books on woodworking. (Could she be more supportive?) Makerplace has a mandatory orientation class–mostly to make sure you can turn the machines on or off and not cut off any body parts–and offers specialized classes for each of their more advanced pieces of equipment. So far I’ve taken the laser cutter class and I’m signed up for the MIG and TIG welding classes next week. Heather and I are also taking the Arduino/electronics series they’re doing in conjunction with FabLab. We’re also going to Maker Faire in a couple weeks too. It’ll be our first time, and I’m really looking forward to it.

So what’s come of all this? Well, in the past month since then I took on my long-postponed project to create a portable, collapsible outdoor bar for parties and events. I designed and built the entire thing from scratch, and once I’ve painted it I’ll probably do a show-and-tell in a future post. Having access to a true wood shop made it so much easier, so much faster and gave me much better final results. And I’m currently pimping my custom industrial trike for Elysium (also to be shown later, once I’m done.) This involves welding, sanding, bending, painting, chrome accessorizing–and a new electronically controlled cold cathode lighting system. I have a dozen other project ideas I’ll take on once I have the necessary skills and time. This is gonna be fun.

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