A Grand Rapids oasis for tinkerers, dabblers and dreamers

One of the best things about being back in Grand Rapids is seeing the energy and creativity that is making this one of the best places to live in Michigan – and, I'd contend, the United States. I recently experienced a prime example of this during the weekly Wednesday night community night at GR Makers.

GR Makers is your high-school shop class on steroids. It describes itself as "an open community lab incorporating elements of a machine shop, a workshop, and a design studio." GR Makers is one of several manifestations of the “maker movement” in Grand Rapids. (Full disclosure: my law firm, Varnum, recently cosponsored the showing of a documentary film on the maker movement presented by GR Makers.)

The maker movement, as recently described in The New Yorker by Evgeny Morozov, is made up of "diverse bunch" who "include 3D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand."

As Morozov writes, "(w)hat turns them into a movement is the intellectual infrastructure that allows makers to reflect on what it means to be a maker. Makers interested in honing their skills can take classes in well-equipped 'makerspaces,' where they can also design and manufacture their wares."

GR Makers is just such a makerspace; it provides the intellectual, physical, and community infrastructure for Grand Rapids' inventors, creators, and tinkerers to come together to produce the next great things. Not only is it a physical location for making, it is also a place of learning where regular classes are held for the community.

When I visited GR Makers' community night, the creativity and collegiality were palpable. The large, open space hummed with activity. Various people were huddled over computers discussing projects. A musician strummed a homemade guitar. An Art Prize creation took shape in one of the corners. Later there were short presentations by whomever wanted to speak about his or her current work, to talk about what they are working on, answer questions, and solicit ideas and help from others in the community. While there, I heard a musician present a piece of his music and someone else talk about his work on developing and tweaking his quadcopter, a drone flying machine.

I also met some of the inventors and creators who are using GR Makers as a launching point. One was Tom Reminga, the inventor of the Flush Down Automatic Toilet seat. Tom described the inspiration behind his invention – the yells he kept getting for forgetting to put down the toilet seat in a house full of women – and the various prototypes he tried out as he perfected his invention.

One fellow GR Maker helped him film the promotional videos for his successful fundraiser for the project. (Other projects that have come out of GR Makers can be found here.)

GR Makers is the outgrowth of a maker community that previously existed as a meet-op group in Grand Rapids and the entrepreneurial efforts of the Grand Rapids software company, Mutually Human.

I spoke with Samuel Bowles, Mutually Human's vice president, about GR Makers. He noted that despite Mutually Human's traditional focus on web and mobile applications, it is seeing that software technology is ever-more embedded in the everyday devices with which we interact: thermostats, toasters, cars, etc. Bowles said Mutually Human realized that one of "gaps in (its) knowledge was around physical products." In order to fill these gaps, it "really needed a deeper understanding of the world of manufacturing and physical products and what's happening in that world."

As a small company, it could not "just hire a whole bunch of experts." But Mutually Human could start a makerspace, which it did. The space has already grown from 3000 to 8000 square feet in just six months, and has added a wide range of tools including a laser cutter and a soon-to-be-delivered 3D printer.

GR Makers has three pillars: expression, education, and entrepreneurship. And, as Bowles explained, it is the living out of these pillars that "will make Grand Rapids a better place to live." Bowles noted that Mutually Human believes that "entrepreneurship and small businesses are the economic drivers that will help us create a new Michigan."

“We know that depending on big contracts from huge companies to come to Michigan will drive nowhere near as much business in our region as supporting small businesses as they invent what may be the next business, as they create products that may define our manufacturing, our technology sector for years and years to come. And by investing in a space that nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship we are investing in the future of Grand Rapids and Michigan,” he said.

Bowles added that the best way to predict the future is to create it. If my recent visit is any indication, GR Makers is creating the future with a flair and ingenuity that will help to power Grand Rapids for years to come.

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