Hands on deck for All Hands Active

At All Hands Active makerspace, the output of brainstorming isn't a chicken-scratched whiteboard or documents to nowhere. Ideas are converted to tangible output at this community lab, running from the mad fun (EggBots, potato cannons) to blue-sky chimerical (fairy doors), to everyday useful: a notebook pen clip, a mounting system for a CNC machine.

These creations are jerry-built at a 1,500-square-foot downtown Ann Arbor workshop that's open daily. All Hands Active has a board of directors and a paid membership, but also welcomes drop-ins, who may use almost all of the equipment for free. Its toolbox includes a laser cutter, sewing machines, 3D computers and printers, a soldering iron, an oscilloscope. Need a book on programming or a German-English dictionary? There's a lending library too.

Communal sharing is a commonality among these makerspaces, also called hackerspaces. There seems to be no handle on their numbers, although Wikipedia puts it in the range of 700-1,100 worldwide. And the difference between the two terms isn't worth the hair-splitting over terminology. They're interchangeable.

All Hands Active has applied for non-profit status and expects to hear by this fall. Before the organization incorporated in early 2010, "It was very much five or six people hanging out in a cafe, in a garage, at a bar, trying to figure out a good location," says board member Josh Williams, who is also shop manager and educator at All Hands Active.

"We were just trying to figure out some way we could have a place to make and create and share ideas. We quickly realized that a) more and more people were getting interested in this, but b) there really wasn't any place to do that outside of a garage and eventually that fills up, or somebody gets upset because they can't park their car."

Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar gets the big picture and the nitty-gritty on All Hands Active from Williams and his fellow board member, Dana Nelson. Edited excerpts follow.

What are your backgrounds and how do they translate to All Hands Active?

WILLIAMS: I've got a fun background. I'm a high school dropout, G.E.D. student. I ended up running a small business called Digital Ops for 10-15 years and was able to utilize a lot of that information and knowledge towards the technical end of All Hands Active as well as working with kids.

NELSON: I went to an alternative school for high school. I graduated. While I was in that high school, I was part of a group called Youth Mentorship Program run by Lynn Malinoff... That affected my decision years later to join All Hands Active and be active in a community and focus on alternative education.

How did you find your space in Ann Arbor?

WILLIAMS: It was fairly serendipitous. We were located in what used to be called Digital Ops...They [Digital Ops] were very technology minded, building your own tools, building your own furniture, so it was a fairly good fit. And that just kind of kept on expanding to the point where about a year ago, it made the most sense for All Hands Active to take over the lease, purchase all the assets, and not exactly rebrand everything All Hands Active, but give the place more of an emphasis on building and creating rather than just playing video games.

What's your coolest, can't-make-without, equipment?

NELSON: I would have to say the laser cutters and the 3D printers. People are realizing that learning how to 3-D model is not this super-complicated thing that you have go to college for anymore. You can learn it  yourself. There's free software...3D printers are now commercially available for almost everyone. They cost a pretty penny, but they're not so expensive we need an investor to buy one for us.

We're also very much a duocracy. If someone drums up enough interest between multiple members and they decide that they want to start a biohacking lab down here and they buy some basic equipment, then we kind of feel that it's our duty to make room or find a space where all that can happen. Because it's not really all about what the board wants to do or what the managers want to do, it's about what the members want.

How does the membership structure work?

WILLIAMS: We do offer memberships and that basically gets you two things: One, you get voting rights. When board elections are coming around the membership gets to vote on who the next board of directors is. And then two, having a membership gives you 24/7 access. Volunteers keep it open [to the public] 40-50 hours a week.

What are your members' demographics?

WILLIAMS: A lot of college students and people who are just out of college, a fair amount of people that have some sort of tech involvement or start-up involvement in the area, but usually between the ages of 20 and 30.

NELSON: We get a lot of software engineers, hardware engineers. We have an architecture student..A lot of programmers as well. Name a field and we have at least one of 'em. We have a nurse.

WILLIAMS: We've got artists...We're very encouraging of people that come down here and paint. We've got supplies to do that.

Do you have programming for kids as well?

WILLIAMS: We're heavily involved in an outreach education program called Bright Futures. We're at about a half-dozen schools every week doing after-school DIY programs. That's everything from programming to line following? To robotics, electronics, painting, anything that really gets kids using their hands to do something. Dana's working on a summer camp that will be geared towards middle schools students.

Were you at the Maker Faire at The Henry Ford Museum?

NELSON: Our organization participated in the Power Wheels Racing, but mainly what we did was...we just ran classes constantly. We had Python programming classes, we had java script running. Arduino, Rocket, Backyard Brains. We had knitting...It was awesome. We taught about 15 kids Python and probably twice that in Java. And we launched rockets all day.

What's the biggest problem you've solved to date?

NELSON: Backyard Brains is a a start-up that runs out of All Hands Active. [Owner] Greg Gage was actually featured on CNN for Backyard Brains. And I was on TV. It was kind of nerve-wracking! DIY neuroscience: they make educational kits for grades K-12. We find that a lot of universities and undergrad students are picking up the items as well. Apparently they can actually be used for actual science instead of just education. The most popular product is called a SpikerBox. It allows you to hear, see, and record action potentials or spikes, going off in the legs of almost any invertebrate, but we use cockroaches because no one ever feels bad about tearing the leg off a cockroach. We just launched our newest product which is the human version, the EMG SpikerBox.

WILLIAMS: No tearing of legs off.

NELSON: No tearing the legs off of humans. So we think that's going to expand further than the SpikerBox. Because now little kids and almost anyone doesn't have to get squeamish because they don't have to pick up a cockroach.

What kind of impact can makerspaces have on the regional economy and mindset?

WILLIAMS: There've been a couple people that moved here to Ann Arbor from outside and they've mentioned specifically that having a hackerspace was a significant reason why they decided to stay. The funny thing, if you're into music, where do you go to hang out? You've got all sorts of movies where you can hang out. If you're into computer games, if you're into sports, there's all these places where people hang out. If you're more of a geeky individual and you like to make stuff, create stuff, program, there's not really a whole lot of options where you can go and spend time and feel like you're amongst others with similar interests. It's not something that people usually think about, but I think that's a fundamental reason why North America has gone from having a few dozen hackerspaces five or six years ago to now, I think there's close to 300 in North America alone.

NELSON: There's at least one in every major city.

WILLIAMS: To get access to rapid prototyping space like 3D printers and CNCs and laser cutters, up until very recently if you wanted access to one of those devices, you either had to have a lot of money on your own, or you needed to be at a college or you had to have a job and a position to give you access to that. A lot of these tool have become easy enough where you don't need a college degree to use them, but the world hasn't really caught up to that idea yet.

So hackerspaces are enabling people to use all of these fairly high-end tools without having to go through these programs that cost a ton of money...The classic example I tell people is, my wife and I bought a cordless drill two year ago. We spent $100 on it and we've used it four times...As far as conservation of resources, we're using resources more efficiently. We've got a ton of tools down here, if people need to use or want to borrow that they don't necessarily need to purchase, that's a help to them.

Right, even public libraries have tool-lending programs.

NELSON: That's where I would like to see hackerspaces. I think there's this really vague concept right now of a place where geeky people hang out and make stuff... You wouldn't imagine your city without a library. I want hackerspaces to get to that point.

Or, for example, this is where I could go: A bald eagle's beak was shot off. Animal Rescue found it, and hackerspace members [in Washington state] actually 3D modeled and printed it. They glued the beak back on, and now the bald eagle can use the beak to eat and hunt and do everything it normally would have done. I want hackerspaces to get to the point where something happens in the community and we're one of the first things that they think of.


Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last feature column was, "Shur! Saying Yes to Ann Arbor, and Living It".

All photos by Doug Coombe

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