Maker Works: The Revolution Will Be Robotized

There's a revolution coming. A revolution of robots. Not robots in the Terminator sense, but the spread of robots and the tools of manufacturing -- more affordable and more attainable than ever -- leading to the democratization of manufacturing. One of Ann Arbor's champions of the revolution is Tom Root, co-owner of Maker Works and managing partner of Zingerman's Mail Order.

"We can't keep doing the same things and expect different results," Root says. "Michigan doesn't need the Big Three. We need the Mini 30,000."

Maker Works is the future, or a version of the future that Root sees as inevitable and necessary.

It's hard to differentiate between what Maker Works IS and what Maker Works MEANS. What Maker Works IS is 11,000 square feet full of incredibly cool and expensive machinery catering to four kinds of making: metal, circuits, wood and craft. It works like a gym -- a large space packed with expensive equipment that patrons can access with daily, monthly or yearly memberships. Like a gym with rows of treadmills and elliptical machines, Maker Works has anchor tools that are the bedrock of the space, like the giant ShopBot with its three-axis, computer controlled router that can accommodate 4x8 plywood sheets and cut perfect circles. Also like a gym, Maker Works has some of the more pedestrian tools of the trade. At the gym it might be balance balls and dumbbells -- at Maker Works it's sewing machines and soldering tools.

What Maker Works MEANS is just as important. Root's mission is to mesh three stakeholders of the maker movement -- 1099 contractors, students and makers -- to create change. In Root's paradigm, makers are small business owners and professionals who earn a living making things. Students are the younger makers skilled in software, tech and abstraction, but lacking a solid base of hands-on skills, and the 1099s are the makers who are skilled industry professionals who don't draw a regular paycheck due to unemployment or retirement. Maker Works links today's makers with a previous generation of hands-on skilled professionals and the theoretical minds of tomorrow to create something new.

"There's a rush to abstraction," Root says. "It's accepted as a proxy. Engineers used to apprentice and work with their hands before they moved on to design. Today we start with abstraction with no practical underpinning. How can we expect the same caliber of engineer today when we're losing the hands-on component of education?"

Root points out that the new Skyline High School doesn't have a shop. Hands-on technical classes are de-emphasized in today's curriculum. The trades of the past are being lost.

Root didn't come up with the concept of Maker Works. It's a direct descendent of BattleBots' competitor, MythBusters science advisor and TechShop founder Jim Newton. When Newton's access to professional workshops dried up, he decided to create his own, starting TechShop in California. With four locations and a fifth opening in Allen Park, the democratization of DIY was underway.

Root shows me a simple machine called the MakerBot. It looks like a cheap wood and metal box, smaller than a mini-fridge. The MakerBot is a 3D printer that melts and forms spools of plastic into 3D objects. It's one of the central figures in Root's vision of the future. If a part in your washing machine breaks tomorrow, you need to order a replacement, which is shipped from a warehouse or distribution center, processed, and finally delivered to your door. A complex supply chain engaged for a single washing machine part. Root sees a day when every home will have a machine that can replicate things like washing machine parts with a simple download. Multipurpose manufacturing robots in your own home means no more supply chain. No more Maytag Man.

"The day is coming," Root says. The revolution will be robotized.

The first Maker Works member signed up on September 3 and since then the warmest response has been from small business owners and professional crafters -- the makers segment of Root's triangular mission. A few businesses are already making good use of the space -- Axiobionics, which manufactures wearable therapy garments, and Ingenuitas, which develops low-cost Automatic Optical Inspection systems.

"Our goal is to make a system that is lower cost and can be extended by the end-user," says Ingenuitas president and Slashdot co-founder Nathan Oostendorp. "Machine vision -- the type of thing that checks if the top of an aspirin bottle is on -- is a major component of quality control in advanced manufacturing. The twist with Ingenuitas is that we're building it as open source software. Our goal is to make it as accessible as possible."

Ingenuitas uses machines like the CNC router and laser cutter at Maker Works in its product design, saving what it would have sunk into expensive machinery. With these machines running $25,000 and up, start-ups can begin production with just materials and hard work.

Membership coordinator Thea Eck, who also coordinates classes, has given tours to everyone from eager business owners to nervous beginners. Eck tells a story of working with a woman in her 40s who had little tool experience but an eagerness to learn. The woman took a laser cutting class, then an embroidery class, and was overwhelmed by how easily she could produce quality work. The democratization of manufacturing at work.

Manufacturing is headed where the Internet was during its boom. Barriers to entry are being lowered and more and more people can get involved as price points drop and access increases. Instead of requiring half a million dollars to purchase space and equipment, manufacturers can join places like Maker Works and gain access to everything they need -- which goes back to what Maker Works means. As barriers drop, more small companies are formed and those small companies need skilled workers -- both abstract minds and hands-on labor. At incubators like Maker Works, the idea is that these three stakeholders will learn from each other, push each other and do for manufacturing what the Internet boom did for the web.

What better place than Michigan to start this kind of revolution? With promising start-up companies, world-class institutions of learning and a concentration of some of the most highly trained industrial professionals forced out of the job market, the table is set for Root's robot revolution.

Richard Retyi is a former assistant director for athletic media relations and social media director at the University of Michigan and currently works as a brand channel manager at Big Fuel, a marketing and communications firm in Detroit. ;

All photos by Doug Coombe

Tom Root with the Maker Works embroidery machine
A lathe at Maker Works
Tom with the MakerBot
A circuit board prototype from Maker Works' printed circuit board router
Tom in the Maker Works' tool shed
Tom Root with Maker Works co-owner Dale Grover
Dale McDonald with a project from Maker Works' laser cutter/engraver
Tom Root in the machine shop
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