Since its founding in 2011, Ann Arbor's Maker Works
has offered a maker space where anyone can pay a membership fee to access a wide variety of tools, machinery, and programs. Many local hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and artists have embraced Maker Works' vision of accessible equipment and shared learning
But the space itself is only one part of Maker Works' larger mission.
In 2014, Maker Works founders and co-owners Tom Root and Dale Grover started teaching the "Makerspace Operations Bootcamp," where those interested in starting their own maker spaces could learn about Maker Works' approach and systems. Root says inspiring and aiding other maker spaces was a key goal since he and Grover first started discussing the idea of opening one together.
"I like to say that the time I knew that Dale was going to be my perfect partner was when he said, 'You know, Tom, all of this is great, and I can totally see what Maker Works is going to be, but when are we going to teach classes on how to open maker spaces?'" Root says.
"It wasn't going to be good enough just to get a maker space running in our community," he adds. "We wanted to ask, 'How are we going to set the world on fire with this idea?'"
Maker Works co-founder Tom Root.
It didn't take long for an opportunity to present itself. About seven or eight years ago, Root and Grover started getting requests for their expertise.
"They were asking questions like, 'How do you make sure that you have a safe workshop? How do you make sure your tools are getting maintained?'" says Maker Works Executive Director Josh Williams.
Now, new maker spaces like the city of Farmington Hills' forthcoming HAWK Makerspace
are taking Maker Works' lessons to heart.
"We were all really impressed when we first went to Maker Works by how willing they were to share all of their information," says Rachel Timlin, cultural arts supervisor for the city of Farmington Hills' Special Services Department.
Timlin attended Maker Works' week-long boot camp, along with Farmington Hills Cultural Arts Coordinator Jessica Guzman and Special Services Deputy Director Bryan Farmer, while the trio were in the early stages of planning a new maker space component for the city's Hawk Community Center
The HAWK Makerspace Woodshop.
"Before we went there, we were all kind of like, 'Aren't we competition? Why are they going to give us all this information?'" laughs Guzman. "But their idea is just so beautiful. They want multiple maker spaces in every city, and they have no problem sharing their knowledge and their resources. That was really, really refreshing for us."
HAWK Makerspace Manager Gary Marvicsin says Maker Works made it "very easy" for him to figure out what equipment to buy for the HAWK when he came on board a year and a half ago.
"I replicated the equipment that they had on their floor, basically looking at the same types and the facilities that they have so that we could mirror what they offer," he says.
After the boot camp, the HAWK team asked Maker Works to consult on their new space, which they hope to have open by this fall. And HAWK staff are planning to pay it forward.
"The wonderful thing is that [Maker Works staff partnered with HAWK staff] to provide us all this information so that we can use them as a model for our space," Timlin says. "But then we also looked at our particular needs with the goal that then we can become a model for other municipalities that are looking to introduce maker spaces at a government level."
Maker Works is not the first maker space of its kind; Root and Grover were inspired by a California-based series of spaces founded by Jim Newton. But Williams says Maker Works' focus on culture and collection of documented standard operating procedures have led many other spaces to seek Maker Works out for help and inspiration.
Maker Works Executive Director Josh Williams.
Alongside the boot camp, Williams says Maker Works staff have been hosting Zoom gatherings for other Michigan maker spaces and running tours for economic development groups interested in supporting rural maker spaces. They've recently started consulting at the national level as well, working with interested parties in New Hampshire and Boston.
"We're not talking hundreds of people or hundreds of maker spaces, but there's probably about five to 10 maker spaces a year that reach out to us," Williams says. "Most of the time we're just having a one- or two-hour conversation with them, giving them some guidance, sending them a copy of the intentional operations book that we have, and every once in a while a few of them will come out and take a boot camp session with us as well."
Root, Williams, and the Farmington Hills team all agree on the value of the lessons Maker Works has to share — from both successes and mistakes over the years.
"We really learned that you have to establish culture from the get-go and you can't retroactively fit it into place," Guzman says. "The culture that's within your vision has to be part of every aspect. ... It has to be a part of the hiring process. When you're thinking of your policies, how do you support your culture within those policies? [You have to make] sure that the integrity of your culture is at the heart of all of it."
Williams and Root say they try to be particularly open about financial challenges. The HAWK space is supported by local government funding, as well as a large grant from the Bosch Community Fund. By contrast, until recently, Maker Works was privately owned and operated. Root says that makes it difficult to keep the space going sometimes.
The HAWK Makerspace Woodshop.
"The truth is that during the first 10 years of Maker Works, Dale and I continued to fund the shortfall every month to make sure it stayed there," Root says. "Our calculation was simple: we prefer the community with Maker Works than without it, and the financial cost was worth having it around."
But given Maker Works' mission and position as an example to others, many of whom were looking for a sustainable model, Root and Grover decided they needed to make a change.
"They decided, 'Let's just try a different route and see if we can support this as a nonprofit and make it a little bit more accessible in terms of financial sustainability across a larger group,'" Williams says.
In 2021, Maker Works became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, allowing staff to apply more easily for grants and streamline the organization's donations process.
"The objective right now in all of this work is to try to allow it to be self-reliant," Root says. "We're trying to communicate openly and transparently about what's going on. We feel like we've been serving the community for a long time. And now we're kind of raising our hand and saying, 'You know what? We are going to need a little bit of your help now.'"
Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.