[I]t has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things–some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor–who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
-President Barack Obama, 2009
Laura Ulibarri is trying to string a red ukulele while a six-legged robot the size of a Yorkshire terrier whirrs and walks about near her feet. Next to her, Peter Menningen is cooking wax in a tiny black Crockpot. Just behind Ulibarri, a student stares at a laptop screen while a power saw intermittently screams in the background. Somewhere on the other side of the shop, a guy named Shane is cutting drone parts using a Shapeoco CNC router.
Welcome to Thursday night at Maui Makers. For Ulibarri, who is both the Director of the Maui High Performance Computing Center and the President of Maui Makers, it’s all in a night’s work. In fact, the ukuleles she’s stringing are 3D-printed, and are being prepared for her to take to a Make Faire on Oahu (think a big show-and-tell for tinkerers from around Hawaii). Though made of extruded plastic filament, the ukuleles sound remarkably similar to more traditionally manufactured instruments.
There are more than a thousand “makerspaces” throughout the world, and Maui Makers has operated in various locations on Maui for close to a decade now. After occupying spots in Pu`unene, Wailuku and Waihee, none of which were ideal, late last year they moved into a permanent location in a Waikapu light industrial park–the largest and most durable space they’ve yet occupied. Though they’re still getting settled in, the space is already equal parts wood shop, computer lab and mad scientists laboratory.
That being said, Maui Makers are having a tough time. They need new members–50 to 60 to really get finances stabilized. But accomplishing that requires marketing, and that’s not really a talent for anyone at Maui Makers.
Given all the tools, raw materials, components and junk stacked around the shop, the space was a disorienting place when I walked in at 6pm last Thursday. Just a couple people were there, including Menningen, the shop master.
“What are you making?” I asked him soon after I arrived.
“I’m making a process,” he said, before showing me a small card he was carrying. “I’m a sucker for cheap or free, and I got a shitload of these formica laminate chips.” They’re sample cards used to show customers wanting to redo their kitchen counters. “My friends at Habitat couldn’t figure what to do with them so they dumped them on me.”
Menningen moved to Maui three years ago. Before that, he spent 41 years working in shops, including Sears Roebuck’s product testing lab. Many of the tools in the makerspace are his, on “permanent loan” to the group.
His goal now with the laminate pieces is to come up with a way to use them as stock for business cards, but he’s having trouble making it work. The cards lack a contrasting color that would allow engraving, so Menningen has to find out a way to coat them. After three previous attempts failed, he was trying to cover them with wax when I showed up (which ended up working, as it turned out).
Put simply, the shop that makes it possible for Menningen to do all this is a playground for the imagination–which is pretty much the Maui Makers motto.
“Imagine it, design it, make it real!” states the Maui Makers webpage. “We provide the tools and community to make your dreams come to life.”
Personifying that philosophy is Jerry Isdale, a computer and aerospace engineer who helped found makers groups throughout Hawaii.
“People will often ask us, ‘Could you make me X?’” Isdale told me at the Waikapu makerspace. “We have two answers for that. We can teach you how to make it yourself, or we can introduce you to some makers who might be willing to make it for a fee. We have enough equipment here to make almost anything. And not everyone can have a shop. Maybe the wife doesn’t want the bandsaw in the living room anymore.”
The whole notion of “making”–which has really taken off over the last decade–is in many ways a reaction to America’s post-industrial, largely service-oriented society. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Cooper wrote about what that economic reality can do to a nation’s collective psyche.
“A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent,” Crawford wrote. “And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.”
Groups like Maui Makers stand in opposition to those trends by teaching people how they can construct something (a robot, action figure, drone or even just method of producing flour from Kiawe) on their own. There are currently hundreds of them scattered around the U.S., but the Maui operation is one of the better known–a considerable accomplishment, given that Maui is both rural/low population density and urban/high cost of living.
Before Maui Makers converted into a nonprofit organization in 2014, when it was a “negative profit corporation,” as Isdale likes to joke, he managed to secure a contract with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to get makerspaces involved in space activities–everything from habitats to telescopes to rocketry. Later, Isdale worked with NASA on involving makerspaces in their “Asteroid Grand Challenge,” which has the goal of cataloguing all known asteroid threats to the planet Earth. Then last year, Maui Makers President Ulibarri represented Hawaii when she traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of a big White House Makers Faire.
“The Obama Administration was very supportive of makers,” Isdale said. That support began with Obama’s 2009 inaugural address (quoted at the top of this story) and continued throughout his eight years in office.
But at its heart, Maui Makers concentrate on teaching people not only how today’s tech works, but how they can build it and maintain it themselves.
“Colleges are very much into theory,” said Isdale. “I throw people into the deep end.”
The result is that someone who signs up for a three-hour Maui Makers class in, say, coding, is typing away at a computer within minutes of arriving. Same with any of the other classes Maui Makers offers–and there are a ton of them: programming Arduinos (single-board microcontrollers that can be used to operate a huge array of projects and sensors), soldering, electronics, AutoCAD (computer aided design software), wood shop, crafting and 3D printing, to name a few. Isdale said they want to start classes in drones and in the general purpose computer language Python (while used to teach kids the basics of programming, it’s also used at the Maui High Performance Computing Center, and Isdale said they need more programmers).
But at the same time, Maui Makers isn’t a top-down, lecturer/student organization. The beauty of a makerspace is that the more people you have contributing, the more everyone learns from just being in close proximity to each other.
Having said, the Maui makerspace is still a work in progress. Though the shop has a section near the front door devoted to welding, no one has yet welded there (the equipment isn’t yet set up, Isdale told me). The space also has a “lounge” of sorts that isn’t quite as welcoming as it should be, a variety of obsolete computers, a sink (“someone gave us a sink,” Isdale said matter-of-factly) and a mass spectrometer (an instrument used to make precise measurements of mass) taken from the old Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar mill in Pu‘unene. That last item, though it sounds really cool, poses a quandary for the group.
“It didn’t come with instructions,” Ulibarri said. “And we talked with people who said that if you don’t hook it up right, it could blow up.”
Though Maui Makers already have a large pool of talented members and volunteers, they need more–especially given their goal of eventually allowing members to use their facilities and tools 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We’re all volunteers,” Ulibarri said. “Most of us have full-time jobs. And there are only so many hours in a day.”
“We have a few people with 24/7 access,” Isdale said. “It’s a balance. We’re looking at ways to make that a premium.”
Isdale said they also want to be able to license six-foot by six-foot areas within the Maui Makers shops to individual members–for a fee, members would be able to store their own tools and materials there (the shop already has lockers).
For Ulibarri, the road ahead is clear, but they still have a lot of traveling to do. “We have a blueprint but we’re tinkering to meet the needs of the community,” she said.
Go to Mauimakers.com for a schedule of classes and more information on the group.
Cover photo of Laura Ulibarri: Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst