'Maker' culture takes hold among creative types

An instructor modifying a bicycle frame at TechShop in Arlington, Virginia. TechShop offers classes and supplies equipment and software.
An instructor modifying a bicycle frame at TechShop in Arlington, Virginia. TechShop offers classes and supplies equipment and software.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds gather at workshops to learn new skills and make things

ARLINGTON (United States) • It's hard to miss the plane that sits triumphantly in the midst of a store in Washington's suburbs. But there are no wings, cockpit or motor attached to its shiny fuselage.

And the man tinkering with it is neither a professional technician nor an occasional handyman.

Rather, he and others around him are "makers" - enthusiasts from a myriad of backgrounds keen on coming up with new things through collaboration.

Welcome to TechShop, a chain of eight facilities in the United States where creatives, in exchange for a fee, can access professional equipment, software and experts.

At first glance, the Arlington branch, located at a mall just several Metro stops from the White House, looks like a small, nearly empty and nondescript store.

But once inside, there's no mistaking this is a space where ideas come to life. Spread across nearly 220 sq m, it is stocked full of equipment.

A faint smell of burnt wood wafts through the air, emanating from a laser cutting machine. With the help of this 3D printer, inventors can create shapes in a whole range of materials, from cardboard to wood and foam. These types of machines are now standard in so-called makerspaces, participatory shops open to the public that have seen a boom of sorts in recent years.

It is unclear when exactly this do- it-yourself (DIY) maker movement first began, with its push for "learning through doing" and taking novel approaches to the use of both traditional and new technologies.

But humans have been collaborating on making tools and coming up with new methods of using them for millennia. The latest iteration of the maker movement - which has made its mark on more than 500 open sites throughout the world over the past decade - kicked off with two specific events.

First, there was the opening of the first hackerspace, c-base, in Berlin in 1995. This meeting place for hackers eventually helped provide real-world applications bridging the gap between fiddling and technological hijacking, by allowing programmers to weld machinery.

The second spark took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld launched a class in 1998 to teach his students how to use machine tools. Instead of attracting techies, "How to make (almost) anything" saw architects, artists and designers join forces to try to learn how they can create what is not commercially available.

That is exactly the crowd at the TechShop in Arlington - people from diverse backgrounds but united in their desire to create something new and innovative.

Each of the eight US shops in the chain are sponsored by local businesses or agencies operating in the region where they are located.

Here, in the shadow of the Pentagon, it is the US Defence Department's Darpa military research agency - which played a key role in creating the Internet - and the US Department of Veterans Affairs that are doling out the cash.

Veterans get a free annual membership that allows them to participate in training workshops and use TechShop machines.

Anyone can attend classes, while membership costs US$150 (S$212) per month or US$1,650 per year.

While the machines, services and training provided may justify the cost, TechShop is more commercial than other participatory workshops elsewhere that tend to be free, or almost free apart from the cost of materials.

Regardless, these public workshops are taking flight - the number of makerspaces around the world doubles about every 18 months.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline ''Maker' culture takes hold among creative types'. Print Edition | Subscribe