Where is everyone?

I am lucky to live within biking distance of the Davis Craft Center, an excellent facility that provides screen printing, woodworking, welding, and “maker” resources (3D printer, laser cutter, soldering kit, etc.) to UC Davis students and community members at very reasonable prices.

I only learned about the maker space at the Craft center within the last three months; since then have been visiting semi-regularly to work on my projects. The main benefit of working there for me is that there is significantly more space compared to my one bedroom apartment and it is cat free. This is especially helpful when working with anything remotely string shaped.

Something I have noticed though is that 90% of the time, I am the only person there. So I usually find myself wondering, aren’t there other people working on cool stuff that would want to use this space? Where are they? Do they just not know about it?

The Craft center maker space has a 3D printer, two laser cutters, a vinyl cutter, a drill press, and plenty of workbench space to spread out. It is also basically free for UC Davis students. So where is everyone? I was talking about this with a friend who regularly uses the maker space at a local library. He had made similar antidotal observations about the seemingly low lack of utilization despite the space having the standard complement of maker equipment.

Focus on onboarding

While thinking about this a bit more one thought I had was that the reason these spaces might often be empty despite the low cost is that the equipment they often have available does not appeal to those who already have a moderate degree of “maker” experience.

For example, I am relatively proficient in the usual “maker” complement of skills; I own (and am continually operating) a 3D printer, have the knowledge and kit to put together basic electronics, and know how to use standard shop tools. Often, local maker spaces (like the Davis Craft Center) do not offer equipment that goes much beyond this. Why would I use a public 3D printer that I have very little control over when I own one myself? Why bike to the craft center to solder up a board when I have my iron in my toolbox? The only ability that the craft center offers me that I can’t do in my laundry room is laser cutting and so that is usually what I am doing if I am there. This is all to say that you need expert-level tools to attract those with expertise. However, this may not be feasible because it means investing in more expensive and specialized tools and the people to maintain them.

For spaces that cannot make this investment, they need to focus on getting those without experience into the space and making something. Maker spaces that only have tools that someone could reasonably operate in their laundry room need to focus heavily on creating demand by getting newbies in the building instead of trying or assuming they will capture demand from experienced makers.

This might mean a stronger focus on free-one-day-intro type classes, networking with high school and other local groups, targeting hobby groups that may be not be involved in maker-type activities but are passionate about something else (i.e a Dungeons and Dragon club could be invited to try printing models for their game nights on the space’s 3D printer).

If not for tools, then for community

Without the funding for advanced tools and skillful staff, maker spaces can attract experts by building a community. Instead of buying cool new tools, let the human tools come to you by organizing events that cater to those who already have experience. These events should not be focused on actually going through a specific project (which is likely to be more effective for beginners) but focus on aspects of hobbies that surround the actual making of things. One example could be a Nerf war that only allows home-built blasters; this does not facilitate the building of these blasters but brings people in who already can make them on their own.

A space that cultivates a critical mass of expert know-how from knowledgeable humans simply existing there will (in my mind) naturally attract other intermediate to expert makers who want to both learn and just hang out with like-minded people while they build. These types of individuals will come to the maker space not because they require its resources but because it is a place with other makers.

Easier said than done …

I don’t and have never run a maker space. Putting theory into practice is usually much more difficult in practice than it is in theory; especially when that theory is based on purely anecdotal evidence from a random 25-year-old who happens to have a blog. This post is mostly to stimulate discussion on the purpose of local maker spaces should be and how to achieve it.