Beset on all sides by virtual worlds, virtual goods and the app economy, it’s easy to worry that the future will be made entirely of bits and bytes. Fortunately, the rapid pace of technological advancement also has fueled a resurgence of interest in the tangible.
The maker movement celebrates tinkering, creating and sharing, with a reassuring emphasis on physical, touchable, sometimes malleable things. Skills and tools that may once merely have sparked nostalgia — from woodworking to circuitry to knitting — are now at the core of cutting edge innovation and at the heart of many STEM education programs.
While makers embrace the “Do It Yourself” ethic, working with larger or more complex materials and tools does require some specialized skills and a dedicated space. This is a challenge for maker groups everywhere, and space is at a premium in Hawaii. Still, many local maker groups have been able to find a home.
Maui Makers was born in a cargo container in Puunene, but now has a 700-square-foot second-floor space in Kahului. And a partnership is in the works to move into a larger, shared space, according to president Laura Ulibarri.
“Once that happens, we’ll be able to go big on the CNC [computer controlled material cutting] machines,” said Ulibarri, who spent over 25 years in aerospace research and development. “We’ll have access to a 5-foot by 10-foot Multicam [router] as well as a nice Taig milling machine in the new space, plus room for large projects.”
“I still meet people every day who are doing great things, but have not heard about all of the other people making things that they could meet and work with.” — Ross Mukai, Oahu Makerspace
In Hilo, The Makery has a 7,000-square-foot space that includes a gallery and retail area, design studio, a workshop for laser and 3-D printing, a classroom and a woodworking space, all outfitted with a wide variety of tools. Founder Neil Scott, an engineer and inventor, said the wide array of equipment has drawn a number of interesting projects.
“We have increasing numbers of people wanting printed plastic replacement parts or laser cut or engraved objects,” Scott said. “And we’re beginning a collaboration with several aquaponics groups and schools on the mainland to teach students how to make and operate the aquaponics systems.”
The Oahu Makerspace moved from Kakaako to Kalihi last year, and now has “roughly 4,500-square-feet of awesome,” said co-founder Ross Mukai. “The ground floor is where all of the loud and dusty work goes on, and the second floor is where all of the quiet and clean work happens.”
The HiCapacity maker space also moved out of a shared space in Kakaako and found a dedicated space at the Manoa Innovation Center.
Kauai Makers is still looking for a space, but has still been able to meet twice a month for over a year, and has even acquired nearly $10,000 in equipment, including a CNC router, 3-D printers, a large format printer and a vinyl cutter.
“Our goal at the Kauai Makerspace is to create a community powered workspace that fosters creative technological exploration, education, and invention,” said vice president Mike Armstrong.
Making A Living
While makers are often seen as hobbyists, their creative pursuits increasingly are recognized as key ingredients in education, business and economic development.
“Kauai has its fair share of creative individuals. The most pronounced are the artists and jewelers who can be found lining the streets at art nights held regularly around the island,” said Armstrong, who comes from an information-systems background. “A lot of Kauai residents have turned to making as a way to supplement their income and possibly break free from the dominant service industry — hotels, restaurants, and activities — that employs the majority of Kauai’s workforce.”
Speaking of the Oahu Makerspace, Mukai, who holds down a day job in IT, said, “some of our members have been able to level up their work from fun hobby to small business. Reid is the owner of Ho’okani Music Company, and he makes ukuleles and other instruments at the shop, and Nick runs Malcognition and he is making a lot of really cool signs and metalwork.”
In Hilo, The Makery is designed around the bigger picture.
“Most makerspaces appear to be operated more along the structure of a gym or club, where individuals pay a subscription to have access to a collection of tools and machines that they can use for individual projects,” Scott said. “The model we are developing at The Makery is more structured, rather like an accelerated apprenticeship where people work through a carefully designed progression of activities.”
“My focus is on providing training and experience that will lead to meaningful 21st century jobs, most of which don’t exist yet,” he added. “We often refer to The Makery as the ‘job factory’ because the goal is to help people to invent jobs that create exports from natural resources available in Hawaii.”
Scott said two quadriplegic makers recently graduated from the program and are now in business doing 3D design and manufacturing work — one making laser-cut koa jewelry and the other doing independent contract design.
Making More Makers
Education is a big part of the maker mission.
Kauai Makers teamed up with local librarians to host 3D printing presentations at all six branches on the island. It participated in the Hawaii Society for Technology in Education’s EdCamp Kauai event for the last two years and recently worked on a student rocketry project.
“Edcamp was a great way for us to have open discussions with teacher educators about ways to incorporate 3-D printing and CAD [computer aided design] in our schools,” Armstrong said. “And this past fall, we helped the Waimea High School Rocketeers build their first rocket equipped with a live-streaming, downward-facing camera.”
“We sourced all of the electronic components and printed custom rocket parts designed by the Rocketeers using our 3-D printers,” he added.
Scott previously worked at Stanford University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa before leaving to start The Makery in Hilo in 2013. He is working with several schools to introduce maker activities from kindergarten through high school to develop pathways to meaningful jobs for students who are not continuing onto college.
And Oahu Makerspace helped a Cub Scout pack at Palolo Elementary with a pinewood derby.
“A lot of the kids did not have access to any form of wood shop, so we did a little bit of bandsaw and laser engraving work and made trophies and posters for the event,” Mukai said. “The kids were very excited not only to see their own cars race, but also to see anyone’s car go down the track, and first, second, third place did not matter, it was just exciting.”
One Faire To Unite Them All
Because makers are so diverse, it’s hard to wrap your hands around it as a single community.
“There is a large community of artists, tinkerers, inventors and entrepreneurs who fit the description of a maker, but exist in largely separate and independent groups,” Mukai said. “I still meet people every day who are doing great things, but have not heard about all of the other people making things that they could meet and work with.”
There are “lots of silos of excellence, but not really a community, in my humble opinion,” said Jon Shear, who heads the Honolulu Mini Maker Faire organizing committee. “I haven’t seen a lot of collaboration that continues throughout the year.”
“It does seem like the collaboration between the islands continues to get stronger,” he added.
To foster those connections, Ulibarri said Maui Makers started a monthly statewide Maker Hangout earlier this year.
“We try to meet every month or two to share ideas and knowledge,” Ulibarri said. “We’ve had Oahu Makerspace, Kauai Makerspace and HiCapacity in on the video calls.”
The inter-island videoconferences started as a way to talk shop about computer-controlled cutting machines, but they quickly became a venue for general sharing, she added.
Right now, the hot topic is next month’s Honolulu Mini Maker Faire.
“The maker community seems to pull together extremely well for the mini maker faire,” Shear said, noting that last year organizers were able to subsidize travel to support makers from the neighbor islands. “This year Maui Makers is the lead organization sponsoring the Honolulu Mini Maker Faire.“
“The event is really a great way to meet face to face with the other makerspace organizations and makers in the community,” Armstrong said. “This year we will be offering attendees to battle sumo bots that were made in-house by our members.”
“We’re working on a 3-D-printed, full-sized animatronic human, based on a project called InMoov by a French artist,” Ulibarri said. “We’re hoping to finish the arm and bring it to the Honolulu Mini Maker Faire.”
There are now over 200 official Maker Faire events held around the world each year, including community-organized Mini Maker Faire events, flagship events organized by Maker Media, and school events.
“It’s an all-volunteer-run event, so that comes with its own challenges for keeping and building momentum to organize everything, but it does seems like we have the code broken for how to pull the event together,” Shear said. “And Maker Media continues to provide a lot of resources to support us.”
“I think the annual Mini Maker Faire continues to be the highlight of the year for the maker community… but I’m a bit biased,” he added.
The third Honolulu Mini Maker Faire will be held Saturday, June 25 at the Sullivan Center at Iolani School. For more information, visit makerfairehonolulu.com.
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Ryan Ozawa is a life-long geek, avid media maker, and community builder focused on the Hawaii tech and innovation scene. He is the communications director for local tech firm Hawaii Information Service, a former newspaper editor, and proud husband and dad of three. He is a co-host of Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio. You can follow him on Twitter at @Hawaii .