It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Glasgow’s MAKLab and it feels like things are happening. In one corner a laser cutter is preparing a piece of glass to be used as part of an architectural model, off to the side a 3D printer is in the process of being built, on a table in the back there’s a half-assembled Plexiglas chandelier. And all around the studio a variety of machines — CNC milling machines, CNC routers, a digital embroidery machine, a vinyl cutter, a 3D scanner, and other 3D printers — sit, just waiting for someone to come in and flip them on. There is seemingly no end to what can be made at MAKLab, and that, of course, is entirely the point.
MAKLab is a fab lab, short for fabrication laboratory, a place for designers, artists, architects, students, makers, engineers, crafters, hobbyists, and anyone who likes making things to come and create something amazing. Part of MIT’s network of fab labs, MAKLab, is the first of its kind in Scotland. It only just opened this past July, but there are already motions in the works for more. As the maker culture movement moves further into the mainstream, fab labs are cropping up at an ever-increasing rate all over the world. As the MIT fab lab website puts it, “fab labs provide widespread access to modern means for invention”, which make them natural hubs for makers.
What is the maker culture movement? On the small scale, it’s a creative response to some of the problems inherent in the current system of mainstream mass production. Instead of filling their lives with cheaply made, boring and unethically produced goods, makers take the creation of the physical items they deal with every day back into their own hands, literally. On a larger scale, the maker culture movement is about changing the way we interact with our stuff, with the goals of making people’s lives better, easier, more interesting, less expensive, more eco-friendly, and more fun.
Although traditional hand-crafts, such as sewing, knitting, ceramics, and carpentry, are part of this world, in maker culture there’s an emphasis on high-tech means of creating, and on hacking existing technologies to make them do new things and work in cool new ways.
3D printers are one of the most exciting machines associated with the maker movement and MAKLab has three of them. Laid out near the entrance are a handful of items made on MAKLabs 3D printers including an incredibly detailed miniature hand (it’s perfectly lifelike because it was created using a 3D scan of an actual hand), a miniature skull, a working wrench, a plastic bicycle chain, and a tiny architectural design for a house (complete with teeny tiny bathroom fixtures).
3D printers are increasingly making their way into the worlds of technology, art, fashion, medicine and even food. In short, here’s how they work: you start with a digital design, either drafted on a computer using CAD (computer-aided design) software or captured with a 3D scanner. Then the design is digitally sliced into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers, which the 3D printer sprays in succession, one by one until your object is done. (Plastic is one of the most commonly 3D printed materials, but super high-quality 3D printers are capable of making items using anything from sugar to metal).
As more and more people gain access to 3D printers the online resources supporting them grow accordingly. The popular website, Thingiverse, contains thousands upon thousands of digital designs, useful and decorative or both, everything from Dr. Who cufflinks, to snap together lamps, a fully printable padlock and wall mountable toothbrush holder. All designs on Thingiverse are freely shared by their designers under GNU General Public License or Creative Commons licenses, which means anyone can download them and use them for no cost.
Collaboration is an important part of the maker movement, whether over the internet or at fab labs like MAKLab.
“It [collaboration] is the aim of this space,” said Richard Clifford, Studio Director of MAKLab. And the layout reflects that. The space is large and open. Most of the machines are set up around the perimeter of the room, in the center of the room there’s a pair of comfortable leather couches, on either side of a table on which lay candy colored Plexi-glass samples, and a copy of MAKE magazine. Behind that there’s a large community table surrounded by chairs and covered in bits and pieces of projects in progress. Soon, the community table will have a webcam focused on it so that they can communicate with fab labs all over the world.
“It is very much about the network,” said Clifford. “The machines are sort of subservient to that, the machines are just a mechanism to make it happen. It’s the network and the group, the family of makers that’s really important.”
Whenever someone joins MAKLab Studio Director Clifford or Technical Director Stuart Milne find out what skills that person has, whether it be in jewelry making or technical design. Then, when anyone else expresses interest in a certain type of project, if one of the directors doesn’t have personal experience in that area they’ll be able to introduce them to someone who does. And if you can’t complete your project at MAKLab, they’ll help you figure out where to go.
“Say for example you come in with you want something water jet cut, which is an industrial process, we’d never do it in here but we know the people who would do it for you. So we can phone them up, discuss the project with you and with them so that you don’t have to go and try and find them. It’s sort of a hub to get things made as well…it’s a much wider family.”
And helping the family of makers grow is Fi Scott, the founder of Make/Works, which is supported by MAKLabs and housed in the same space. Started during her final year at the Glasgow School of Art, and continued now since graduation, Make/Works will be a database of designers, makers, artists, craftspeople, architects, and anyone doing creative manufacturing in Glasgow. The Glasgow-based beta version of the site will launch soon, hopefully by the end of the year.
“I connected with MAKLab, during the initial development of the project where I was interviewing people in the creative industries in Glasgow,” said Scott of her relationship with MAKLab. “We arranged to meet up and really just clicked! Their ethos about facilitating making, manufacture – the importance of it, and making this more accessible was really aligned with mine, and they offered to support me from there. It works out really well now, because when I launch Make/Works – we will have it running in the MAKLab studio, so that anything people are unable to do there, they can source locally through the service.”
As more and more people are becoming interested in local goods, the maker culture movement is helping expand the variety of items that can be produced just next door.
Take Makie Lab, a newly launched toy company based in London, with a “tiny team” in Helsinki. The people at Makie Lab manufacture and sell Makies, a fully-customizable and poseable action doll. The customer picks the shoes, the eyes, the hair, the positions of the hands, the type of feet, and digitally designs the face, picking everything from eye color, to nose width, to the level of eyebrow “ferocity”. Once you order your doll, its heads, hands and feet are all printed out on a 3D printer. It is the 3D printing technology that makes companies like Makie Labs able to produce incredibly high quality one-of-a-kind products for a reasonable cost, right there in London.
In further keeping with the maker ethos, Makies are designed to be fully hackable. As Alice Taylor, founder and CEO of Makie Labs put it, “Toys should be something you can really play with…” The body of each doll has space in it for wires, and a Lilypad Arduino (or similar), the eyes are mobile if you open the head up and unclip them. A clever maker Makie owner could make their Makie talk, dance or who knows what else.
There is a forum on the Makie.me site where Makie doll owners can collaborate and share tips on how they’ve further customized their Makies whether on the “Electronics, hacking, nerdom” section of the forum, or the board for “Clothes, patterns, crafting”. There are also, of course, areas for people to upload photos of what they’ve done.
While collaboration happens between customers, it happens within Makie Lab’s team as well. “Over email, I asked Taylor what role it plays in their business model.” She wrote: “Collaboration – we do a lot of it. Sometimes too much, in that it’s unusual to be so flat in hierarchy, have so many folks working at the same level. But I like it. It’s inclusive, and conversational. It’s no accident that Makie Lab – a hardcore tech company – is half male, half female, even at board level. We make a real effort there – to collaborate, to get a good balance of opinion and viewpoints.”
And so far whatever they’re doing is certainly working. Makie Lab has received £1.4 million in seed investment and since launching just earlier this summer they’ve already sold almost 2700 Makies for £99 each.
In a time when many people are scared to start businesses, the early success of Makie Lab is especially inspiring. More and more, people are being called upon to figure out their own ways of making a living. And the maker movement is helping make that a reality.
Is the next big thing already being invented at a fab lab like MAKLab right now? It’s certainly possible. As MAKLab’s Richard Clifford put it: “We show them exactly what to do in the hope that they go away and have another great idea and come back and then, maybe, that could be a product that will make them millions of pounds,” he smiled. “You never know.”
[image courtesy of MakieLab]