SLO MakerSpace is alive with the din of industrious activity: the buzz of the router, the whir of a sewing machine and the gentle hum of the pottery wheel.
Though the tasks have different outcomes, they are driven by the same desire: to learn, create and innovate.
SLO MakerSpace is a membership-based workshop where people can use machinery, learn skills and collaborate on projects. It opened last February, the brainchild of local physician Clint Slaughter and several like-minded individuals.
Since then, its membership rolls have grown, propelled by a nationwide interest in building, inventing, tinkering and upcycling (converting waste materials into useful items) known as the maker movement.
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Manufacturing and making things “have historically been a strong part of our culture,” said Thomas Katona, assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Cal Poly biomedical engineering department, as well as faculty adviser for a student maker workshop called the Innovation Sandbox.
“We went through a period of relatively low interest in manufacturing that coincided with large manufacturing outsourcing,” he said. “I see the (maker) movement as the pendulum swinging back in the direction of more interest in DIY (do it yourself) building and manufacturing.”
Also driving the maker movement are new, user-friendly machinery and platforms that “lower the barrier to entry for those with an interest in making,” Katona said.
This is where the MakerSpace comes in.
Members have access to a wider array of tools and machinery than most could purchase, maintain and house on their own.
The facility’s current inventory includes equipment for woodworking, electronics/robotics, metalworking, pottery and fabric art. There is highly sophisticated machinery such as a computer numerical control (CNC) router that makes computer-guided cuts, 3-D printers that fabricate three-dimensional objects in plastic, and a laser cutter that cuts, engraves and etches patterns in a variety of materials.
Some tools are geared toward young makers, including an R2-D2 robot that teaches computer programming with a user-friendly drag-and-drop programming platform called Scratch.
Similar workshops are well established in urban areas. One of the earliest was TechShop, which opened in 2006 in Menlo Park within the innovation hotbed of the Silicon Valley. Today, TechShop has eight locations nationwide, with more in the works.
“It’s quite remarkable that SLO at this point in time has a space like this,” said Ermina Karim, president and chief executive officer of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. “This is much more a trend that you see in communities much larger than ours. It really speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the community.”
Talent for tinkering
Slaughter discovered his first maker inclinations as a child, building vehicles for his He-Man figurines out of Erector sets and rubber bands. Although he continues to be a tinkerer, his talent for fixing things was directed into the medical field. He is as an emergency physician at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital.
Three years ago, he submitted a grant application to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, for its 100 Year Starship program. Its aim was to devise a way to indefinitely support human life in space. Slaughter didn’t win the grant, but his plans for an engineering department to create supplies for the starship were the basis for his SLO MakerSpace concept.
He shared his idea with several community members and found 12 investors whose contributions ranged from “sweat equity to $10,000,” Slaughter said.
Together, they began setting up a benefit corporation.
“It was the only way we could get funding initially,” Slaughter said, “rather than be a nonprofit and search for grants or donations, and possibly wait for years.”
With $65,000 in startup capital, the original board paid for permitting, insurance, equipment and rent for a 3,500-square-foot space in an industrial complex off Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo.
It also allowed for “an initial financial cushion,” Slaughter said.
In October, SLO MakerSpace added a three-quarter-time employee, Jessi Brown-Carlin, who is shop manager. The facility also continues to add and update tools and equipment.
Room for creativity
People join SLO MakerSpace for a variety of reasons. Los Osos resident Rick Castello, who is program manager for Amazon San Luis Obispo, uses the MakerSpace for hobby projects. A self-proclaimed “gadget freak,” his recent creations have included laser-cut wood designs for Christmas gifts, as well as crossbars for his cargo trailer.
After devising a clever way to make “faerie wings” out of cardboard and cellophane for his daughter, he taught a class on the subject. In addition to the sheer variety of tools at his disposal, Castello enjoys the inclusive atmosphere at the MakerSpace. “Anybody who has a cool skill, or an idea for a class, can present that idea,” he said.
Fostering entrepreneurship is another aim of SLO MakerSpace. Board member Rory Aronson is using the shop to prototype an invention he calls FarmBot, an agricultural machine that handles farming jobs such as planting seeds, weeding and testing soil. Several members create and sell handcrafted goods, including Sarah Bellum, who collects discarded plastic bags and then crochets them into stylish swimwear.
SLO MakerSpace offers “private workspace memberships,” which include the use of a cubicle.
“It’s a great place for an entrepreneur to prototype or start a business,” Slaughter said. “At $350 per month, it’s pretty much the cheapest little office you can get in town, especially because it includes access to all our machines and tools.”
A new offering called Monthly Maker Meetups provides a venue for members to network. These events can lean toward social — or provide the opportunity to make valuable business connections, Slaughter said.
“A lot of what members come here for is to interact with other creative people, so you can bounce things off people and get ideas,” he said.
As a benefit corporation (incorporation still pending), SLO MakerSpace’s primary goal is to be a “community resource,” rather than to make money for its shareholders, Slaughter said. Currently, it is running a $1,500 per month shortfall, but Slaughter anticipates it being in the black within six months “as we continue to increase our membership and programs.”
The greatest obstacle to growth has been limited startup capital, paired with high overhead. Their major expenses are salary and benefits for their one employee, rent, insurance and electricity.
The purchase and maintenance of tools and equipment is also costly. To keep costs down, the board calls upon the resourcefulness and collaborative spirit of their maker culture. They often accept donations of tools from the community. And when they needed a CNC router, instead of spending $25,000, they purchased a kit for about $4,000 and assembled it themselves.
“It’s not quite as robust and doesn’t have as many features, but we can troubleshoot and fix it because we built it,” Slaughter said.
A work-trader program allows experienced makers to trade membership in exchange for working five or more hours a week doing things such as developing programs, teaching classes and helping to maintain the machines in their department.
SLO MakerSpace has also relied on low-cost or free marketing strategies. It has an email database of more than 500 subscribers, which it uses to send weekly newsletters through MailChimp. It actively uses Facebook and has more than 3,000 followers. Staff and board members post listings on Craigslist, circulate posters and speak at local clubs and organizations. Advertisements in local newspapers have been acquired on a barter basis.
The SLO MakerSpace co-produced last year’s SLO Mini Maker Faire with the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Cal Poly and iFixit, and it plans to become the primary coordinator for this year’s May 9 event, which Slaughter said will be renamed the SLO MakerSpace Expo. The family-oriented, hands-on event showcases an array of maker pursuits and is an avenue for outreach and awareness-building for the MakerSpace.
“We haven’t spent a lot (on marketing), and maybe that’s one reason we haven’t gotten as many people as we anticipated initially,” Slaughter said. “We haven’t figured out how useful Facebook really is. It seems like a good way to keep in touch with the people who are engaged, but we’re not sure how well it does bringing in new people.”
SLO MakerSpace has sought new income streams in order to grow and improve. It has taken on six investors since its inception and continues to court more. It hosts birthday parties, private classes and private “wine and pottery” events.
The shop also helps members sell goods to the public, then shares the proceeds. It takes a 15 percent commission off sales through Etsy.com, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage items. It is a fabricator for European website www.OpenDesk.cc, where users can select a free furniture plan, then have a SLO MakerSpace craftsperson cut the pieces for them.
“Essentially, you get flat-pack furniture that you assemble at home,” said Slaughter, who noted that profits are shared between SLO MakerSpace and the craftsperson.
The board is working on a similar concept they call “Maker Jobs.” This involves using subcontractors with a range of skills to assist the public with projects.
“If you need something done — something cut out, or a prototype you want developed but don’t know how to do it — you can come in and learn the skills to do it yourself, or be connected with people who can do it for you,” Slaughter said. “All these things are working in parallel to improve our bottom line.”
Breaking down barriers
Despite a slow start, membership has been on the rise with recent efforts to decrease barriers and increase accessibility for the community, Slaughter said.
Currently, there are 22 regular members, three family memberships, three private workspace members and 14 work-trader members.
One way the facility is removing barriers is by altering pricing.
Originally, membership was $95 per month.
“That’s actually pretty cheap for access to a shop,” Slaughter said. “We found out a few hard-core makers had no problem paying that, but our community has a lot of hobbyists who still love the concept.”
Now, members pay $45 per month, and $30 for each additional family member. Children younger than 16 are free with a paid adult membership.
“Since we changed pricing the beginning of October, we’ve gotten more members,” Slaughter said.
Currently, there are two members who pay $250 a month for 24-hour access, and Slaughter said that price would drop to $150. The cost for a private workspace recently dropped to $250 per month for a limited time. A full-sized, locked office space is available for $750 per month. Nonmembers have access to classes but pay a higher fee than members.
The SLO MakerSpace also has four corporate members that pay $1,000 annually for two access tags that can be rotated among employees. Companies and groups “have access to the full shop as both a perk for their employees and a way to advance their own business through prototyping, team-building and encouraging creativity,” Slaughter said.
Another barrier is time.
“People are busy, so it’s hard to commit time to an ongoing project, or even to learn about something,” Slaughter said.
The board devised several ways to streamline the creative process. The website www.slomakerspace.com provides quick inspiration with a list of possible projects. For those who need more help, there are “guru hours,” where select work traders offer help and advice to members in their areas of expertise.
Although most equipment at SLO MakerSpace is user-friendly, some have a learning curve that can be intimidating. The MakerSpace’s method for teaching these skills is called its MakerPrime Curriculum. These step-by-step instructions are taught in group and individual workshops and can be accessed anywhere through www.instructables.com.
“By having something available to review at home and utilize when you come in to work, that decreases barriers a little bit more,” Slaughter said.
Building business and community
In addition to new programs such as Maker Jobs, Slaughter and his board have other plans in the works. They want to start a nonprofit arm that will handle educational programs, including those geared toward children. They also plan to offer their MakerPrime Curriculum to middle and high school students and as a job-training program in cooperation with local businesses.
In the next decade, SLO MakerSpace hopes to expand to a much larger facility. This would accommodate large-scale projects, such as automotive work. It may also allow for entrepreneurs to “design products, start a business and actually do small-scale manufacturing of products,” said Slaughter, who sees an increasing desire to pull manufacturing back from overseas.
He shares a vision with other makers throughout the nation who predict that maker workshops will develop into regional manufacturing centers as a way to “rebuild American manufacturing infrastructure,” he said.
“This is an excellent vision for our community, where we already have some impressive light manufacturing businesses,” said Karim of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. “They have a perfect connection to the talent pool that chooses to live here, including all the talent out at Cal Poly. As more and more people understand the potential of the MakerSpace, and as they continue to feel out their pathway and who their partners in the community will be, that vision seems like something that could actually materialize.”
In the meantime, Slaughter is having fun with MakerSpace. He’s created a specialized iPhone dock for his car, is teaching his two sons how to do woodworking and is working on a home monitoring platform that people can make out of their Roomba vacuum robots.
“It’s fun to watch people work together, collaborate and learn in the space,” he said. “If we don’t get beyond that, it’s still exciting to create a place where people can generate business, generate enjoyment and build community.”