Getting innovators out of the basement
by Patrick Dunn
Tom Root says Maker Works is run much like a health club--with laser cutters and metalworking mills replacing treadmills and weight benches.
Across 14,000 square feet of shop space located near the Ann Arbor Airport, the facility offers access to hundreds of craftsman's tools for a membership fee of $35 per day, $90 per month, or $900 per year. From basic tools to state-of-the-art machinery, the shop presents a craftsperson's embarrassment of riches.
Root and partner Dale Grover founded Maker Works in September 2011, funding it entirely out-of-pocket. Grover, an electrical engineer, was a member of the smaller A2 MechShop maker space (which has since moved into Maker Works). Root, a robotics enthusiast and managing partner of Zingerman's Mail Order, was partly driven by his worries about who would solve the economic problems left behind by the 2008 financial crisis. "I finally realized that I needed to get out of the basement," Root says. "Because if not us, who? And if not now, when?"
The partners have since invested $500,000 and two years of hard work into the space, and the results are impressive. Maker Works is divided into four major "domains": electronics, wood, craft, and metal. Each domain is equipped with at least one digital fabrication machine, a device that automatically creates a finished product from a computer-generated design. For example, the craft domain features a 3D printer, which "prints" plastic designs (like Lego bricks, or a small model of a human hand) from digital models by extruding melted filament onto a moving baseplate. Digital fabrication machines in the other domains include a circuit-board printer, a giant router that can create detailed designs and textures in wood, and a plasma-powered metal cutter. Although members are required to take an introductory class before using these high-tech devices, each machine is equipped with an instructional binder. The domains also include more pedestrian tools like soldering guns and sewing machines.
Response to the facility so far has been enthusiastic, with more than
300 memberships issued since it opened. The makers' interests are diverse, with current members including a cabinetmaker, a company that designs small-engine fuel injectors, and one member whom Root describes as a "biologist-cum-game designer." Root says Maker Works creates a valuable exchange of knowledge between hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and students. Students, for example, have shared computer savvy with industrial veterans, who have in turn bestowed their mechanical expertise upon the younger set. Root is adamant that finances shouldn't be a barrier to prospective members young or old. Six members currently pay off their membership dues by doing nine hours of basic maintenance work per month.
Maker Works operates on a "triple bottom line," which considers effects on people and planet alongside profit. Root projects genuine earnestness when he says the shop is intended to address big-picture problems by incubating small business and technological innovation.
"Does having a little bitty shop like this in Ann Arbor guarantee we're going to solve any world problems?" he asks. "Of course not. But I like to say it radically increases the probability. And at this point, a good hedged bet is good enough."
[Originally published in April, 2013.]