Located behind and below the East Tennessee Technology Access Center, Knox Makers has set up a dynamic work space in a massive basement, with a grand opening set for April 1. I stopped in to see one of their classes (3/14, topic: Pi) and to talk with Doug Laney, mechanical engineer and President of the Board and Dominique Lacey, a local artist, who handles PR for the group and graciously invited me to visit their new facility. I’ve written about “makers” before and noted the effort our city and others have made to embrace the movement here and I was curious to see how the maker movement translates into an actual space.
Not only happy to have access to 7,000 square feet, the group is excited to be so near downtown (it’s located just a bit south of Fort Dickerson Park) and to share a building with ETTAC. The mission of ETTAC is to connect people with disabilities with the adaptive technology they need and the maker group has already been at work modifying toys for disabled children – things like making a “Tickle Me Elmo” work with a push for children who have limited fine motor skills, or toys that light up instead of playing music for children with auditory impairment or toys that are quieter for children who are autistic.
The group started in 2011 on Jackson Avenue well before the term “maker” was commonly tossed about. Maker spaces started in Germany in the 1990s and had moved to larger cities in the U.S. by the time the group started here. Make Magazine was spreading the word and the appeal of open source software was encouraging people to work together to solve problems.
Meeting once a month, the group shifted to the Square Room for a while. They had about nine members early on, mostly through spreading the word via Craigslist. Doug joined the group a couple of months in. Eventually they moved to Tech 20-20 in Oak Ridge into a small one thousand square foot space they called home until last May. When they moved to Oak Ridge they raised a few thousand dollars from members and started a bankruptcy clock measuring how long until the money would run out and the group would end if more revenue didn’t come in. They got close, but then began to grow.
Long wanting to return to Knoxville, the group connected with ETTAC and loved the possibility of teaming with them on projects and the space was perfect. Initially gaining access to half the space, they took control of the entire basement floor just last September. It’s allowed them the luxury of having dedicated areas for various creative endeavors, such as wood-working, leather-working, sewing, metal-working and more. Membership, now nearing a hundred, has steadily increased, and has nearly quadrupled since the move to Knoxville even though the group has been very low-key with promotions.
They also have a large classroom, which is central to their pursuit of sharing information and learning about new topics. Fifty to seventy gathered for a class the night I visited. Typical Tuesday nights find a group listening to presentations of current projects and making suggestions of possible solutions to problems the creator has encountered. Sometimes topics presented are fun and timely, like “How to Make Chocolate,” which was the February topic.
Doug summed up the group by saying, “We are a bunch of people who like to learn things.” He referred to the collaborative work as the, “nexus of technology, art and entrepreneurship. Dominique added, “If you collaborate, it’s easier to create. Some people have ideas and others help execute those ideas. Everyone has a different skill set.”
Dominique is an artist, and while many of the members are interested in technology (it was casually mentioned that several members have built their own 3-D printers), also represented are expert crafts persons of all sorts. Several have PhDs (the running joke is you’d have to be in a university faculty meeting to find more PhDs gathered in one spot) and quite a few never attended college. They feel the collaborative possibilities leverage each of their skills and wish to encourage this kind of cross-pollination in the city.
Not only are members provided with space to do their work, tools are also provided, as many of them are prohibitively expensive for an individual hobbyist. The laser cutter had just returned to use when I visited, for example. Elaborate saws and welding equipment are also provided. Beyond the equipment and the synergy, the facility also provides a social center for people whose work, and perhaps personalities, tend to make them typically spend their time alone.
Doug says the entrepreneurial efforts are focused on the very early idea stages. They aren’t set up, for example, for someone who is ready for full-time production. I asked about the security of ideas in such an open environment and the two said that people just as often as not give away ideas, knowing they can’t pursue every idea, but someone else might take it and run.
A couple of businesses have emerged from the group. One member does a 3-D scan of characters at Comicon and similar events and produces superhero figurines for them. In another, Greg Tune, a long-time welder makes metal art from found objects – he brought in a table the night I was there – calling it “Scrappalachian Art. He’s taught basic welding classes at the center. Doug expects more businesses to emerge over time.
The organization is all volunteer and is a 501(c)(3), so donations are tax deductible. The majority of their revenue comes from memberships, which are $50 a month, with senior and student rates set at $20. The fee gives members access to all the equipment, storage for their own equipment or materials and meetings, though classes involve additional cost. The real value, however, may be in joining a community of creative, inquisitive learners and makers. The group wants to bring equipment, experience and education to everyone who seeks it. Dominque said, “Every time you learn to use a new tool, it unlocks possibilities.”
Their bigger goal is to help build a creative economy in Knoxville. Given that our larger production industries have largely moved away, Doug sees, “an opportunity to reinvent our idea of what it means to be a manufacturing center.” He mentioned Pretentious Glass as an example. “We want Knoxville to be the place to go for that kind of small scale manufacturing. We want interested people to say, ‘I need to move to Knoxville.'”
As you might expect, this isn’t a group to have a traditional ribbon-cutting at the grand opening. I’m told the ribbon will be metal and Mayor Rogero will literally make sparks fly as she cuts it with an angle grinder. The grand opening will include tours of the facility, food trucks and more. The event will be held April 1 from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM at 116 Childress. Membership signups will be offered at the event. But why wait? Join them or learn more via their Facebook Page or website.