Inside a nondescript warehouse at the end of a dark alley, some two-dozen people are gathered into small groups. There is the buzz of muted conversations. Near the door, three men are examining an angular structure of dull metal rods, connected with green plastic braces.
The maker explains the problem with his homemade 3D printer, "The extruder was designed for a different machine, and isn't as deep as required. The platform the extruder normally rests on is too tall, so we need to make it shorter."
This isn't some covert operation. It's the weekly Wednesday get together of MakeSLC, a maker/hacker group that describes themselves on their website as "A group of people that like to hack and play with different things." Though weighted toward high tech, they reach out to any type of maker, including sewers, knitters and sign makers.
On this Wednesday is a class about building 3D printers; devices that are likely to revolutionize how we obtain products in the future.
A 3D printer 'prints' actual objects from spools of plastic filament. It looks like weedwacker string. "All the files you need to print something are online. People make toys, people make useful household objects. You can print out your own musical instruments like recorders or ocarinas [an ancient flute like instrument]," says Tim Anderson one of the founders of MakeSLC and part of the 'maker movement'.
What is the maker movement?
At its core, the maker movement is about do-it-yourself projects. The other part is the hacker movement, says Anderson.
"'Hack' isn't what you would call a black hat kind of thing, like hacking into companies. When we hack things, it's just taking things apart for new uses, like taking an old computer apart and finding a new purpose for the computer."
"Adapting is a core concept of 'making.' It's a tangible thing, rather than trying to take information," adds James Howard, who runs an electronics company with Anderson.
Adapting almost necessitates the exchange of knowledge and ideas. While social media and internet sites abound for the maker movement, these clubs are about in-person sharing. Howard says, with a wide smile, the maker/hacker movement is friendly to all, "It's just a hangout on Wednesday nights. If you're curious and want to learn some things, come on down and ask questions."
There are more than 200 such groups throughout the country, with many more throughout the world, and new clubs are forming constantly. Utah's largest group is The Transistor based in Provo, which just this year opened three new locations along the Wasatch Front in Orem, Midvale, and Salt Lake City.
Each Transistor group has a different focus. The Salt Lake chapter focuses on 'infosec', or information security. They have cryptography classes and look at the way web sites are built. The Orem Transistor is in a 5,000 square foot warehouse that has laser cutters and they work on robotics. The Midvale group specializes in programming and electronics. "Most of our members have some type of technology background, but not all of them do," says Deven Fore, who helped form The Transistor groups.
A new subculture arises from an old idea
The maker movement has its roots in do-it-yourself kits, popular in the 1950's and 1960's. "There were electronics that kids could order through magazines, like build your own crystal radios and things along those lines." But Howard says that kind of thing has all gone away.
Today's kids know how to use technology, but don't know how to make it. "We're trying to create another whole generation of engineers again. Hopefully, they'll go on to school, become an engineer and make something even better and cooler. They're going to be the future."
Dorian Tolman, age 24, is part of that next generation; most of the participants are between 30 to 40 years old. Arriving to the MakeSLC meeting on a skateboard, sporting long hair and a hoody, he doesn't fit the description of the stereotypical engineering enthusiast. His futuristic-looking skateboard has unusual ridges on the bottom. They were his idea.
"I make parts for skateboards. I have a friend print out the skeleton for me, then I wrap it with carbon fiber to make the structure I want. The ridges on the bottom of this board adds torsional strength and gives it flexibility along the length," says Tolman.
On that Wednesday, Tolman came to discuss suggestions for improvements to the board's wheel assembly. As several members strolled over to Tolman, a tiny remote-controlled helicopter flew overhead, hovering here and there. For makers, this is the kind of object that sparks creativity. Could it carry a camera? Could it be made smaller? That is the goal of the movement: working together to find ways to make things better.
Skateboard parts maker Dorian Tolman, one of the youngest members of
MakeSLC at 24, shows the revolutionary ridging on the bottom of a board
he designed and made.
A build-it-yourself 3D printer. A commercial 3D printer costs about
$20,000, MakeSLC offers a full kit for $800, which includes the green
plastic parts that will be custom printed for the buyer.
Wil Bown discusses his extruder problem with two other MakeSLC
members. Tim Anderson, is at right.