The owner of TinkerTech, a new makerspace at 216 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti, says he hopes to engage community members who may not fit the usual makerspace user profile.
"One thing I noticed in hobby shops and makerspaces is that they tend to attract a very homogenous group of people, often socially awkward white guys, a group who I consider my people," Michael Ploof says with a laugh.
Ploof says he wants to reach out to a broad cross-section of the community, so TinkerTech's membership will exhibit both demographic and experiential diversity. He intends to build connections with groups ranging from Digital Divas and Girl Develop It to the Parkridge Community Center, and to bring in users who aren't traditional electronics hobbyists.
"I'm pushing to make more connections to technology through music and art," he says. Some of the first workshops and summer camps scheduled at the space focus on unusual topics like building guitar effects pedals, modular synthesizers, and interactive art.
Ploof is sensitive to concerns about Ypsi is being gentrified. He notes that a lot of the recent economic development both downtown and in Depot Town has created "exclusive spaces that cater to one segment."
"I try to be community-minded, and getting people in here from all different parts of the city is a priority," he says. "I want to make sure it's an inclusive space and that it feels applicable and welcoming to everybody."
Ploof's journey to opening his new business wasn't a straight line. After studying biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ploof spent some time working at Saline technology firm Quantum Signal and got into electronics as a hobbyist. Later he took a detour in his career path, earning an education degree from Eastern Michigan University so he could teach physics at the high school level.
"I enjoyed teaching, but not in the context of 36 kids in one class," he says.
While teaching a few students in an independent study course and seeing their enthusiasm and motivation, he realized that sort of one-on-one mentoring and teaching was going to make up very little of what he did for a living if he continued as a classroom teacher.
Ploof had been running a small electronics consulting firm on the side. He and some friends had put money aside to purchase a building to run an electronic parts store similar to Radio Shack. When the friends pulled out of the project, he still had funds set aside and decided to go ahead with his electronics store idea on his own, adding an educational component to the plan. From there, the idea for a makerspace was born.
Ploof says TinkerTech is carving out its niche in the local makerspace market by narrowing focus. Some other makerspaces can help members with projects ranging from wood and metal work to fiber arts, but TinkerTech focuses primarily on electronics.
Having a narrow focus means TinkerTech can have high-quality tools for members to use while keeping costs low, about half the price of memberships at other makerspaces in southeast Michigan. Ploof also subsidizes the cost of a membership or class at TinkerTech with the money generated by the consulting work he continues to do from his new space.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Storefront photo by Adarash Mishra. All other photos by Michael Ploof.