In Somerville and Lowell, do-it-yourselfers making it work
SOMERVILLE — On a recent Saturday morning, about 200 people gathered in a former envelope factory in Somerville.
Sitting on folding chairs and clutching coffee cups, they came from as far away as Guatemala and as near as Lowell to learn how to create a do-it-yourself workshop known as a makerspace.
It may sound like a concept dreamed up in art school, but these spaces — where people share tools and ideas, and even launch successful businesses — are moving from fringe initiatives to Main Street mainstays.
“This is a movement,’’ said Gui Cavalcanti, cofounder of the Artisan’s Asylum, one of the largest makerspaces on the East Coast, where the workshop was held. “I believe people want this type of access to equipment. They want these types of environments to create and they won’t be satisfied till they get it.”
The results in Somerville are palpable. The Artisan’s Asylum has housed 40 to 50 small manufacturing businesses, said Cavalcanti, which has “increased the number of manufacturing businesses in Somerville by 50 percent.”
These kinetic zones, where a next-generation robot might be built in one corner and an ordinary kitchen table in the other, are egalitarian in nature. People buy memberships to use 3-D printers and industrial equipment such as drill presses, previously the domain of schools or industry.
The concept takes many forms — from classes to rented studios to weekend memberships — but above all, makerspaces share the spirit of collaboration and innovation.
“People are tired of consuming everything,’’ said Jim Newton, founder of Techshop, a makerspace in Menlo Park, Calif., regarded as the first. “They want to customize things. Make things they can’t buy.”
By helping some learn to fix a cracked iPhone, or decode digital signals their car is flashing, makerspaces strive to put the power back in people’s hands.
“We are humans, we are supposed to make things. That’s why we have thumbs,” said Newton.
Just how many makerspaces exist is hard to pinpoint because the trend is so new. But Newton said, like health clubs, within the next decade they will be everywhere.
“Right now, you only see the ubergeeks. That’s going to change,” he said.
With paint-splattered jeans, bright green glasses, and a shock of dark curly hair, Diana Coluntino is far from a geek. In April the entrepreneur will open New Vestures, a fashion makerspace in a 3,000-square-foot space in downtown Lowell.
“I’m hoping the maker movement will revive interest in the textile industry,” said Coluntino, who inherited a bank of industrial sewing machines.
Ideally she would like to have four fashion companies operating out of the space, paying less than $100 a month. They will have access to a computer lab where everything from graphic T-shirts to “wacky corsets” are designed and can produce prototypes on a 3D printer.
“I’m interested in the techie buzz and fashion,” said Coluntino, who experimented with robotics at the now-closed Revolving Museum, where she was artistic director.
By collaborating with professors at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to embed technology into textiles, she anticipates revolutionary fashion designs emerging.
“This is a beginning for people to learn to do things on their own,” said Coluntino. “It kind of gives you faith in humanity.”
And it could be a boon for a post-industrial city like Lowell.
Theresa Park, Lowell’s director of economic development, thinks makerspaces are a fantastic invention that dovetail with the city’s strategy to “harness the intellectual strengths of the talent pool here.”
Park is working with another makerspace slated to open later this year, Lowell Makes, and can envision more on the horizon. “This is a city that made things. It’s in the DNA,” said Park, adding that “the ripple effect of those successes could have job opportunities.”
That’s happened in Somerville. Companies incubating at the Asylum on Tyler Street have collectively raised $300,000 through
Kickstarter — an online funding platform for creative projects — and $3 million through venture capital funds, Cavalcanti said.
Such success has cemented the 2½-year-old makerspace as a national model. As Dale Dougherty, founding editor of Make Magazine, toured the Somerville facility, you could feel something vibrant in the air.
“The idea is to bring back the making spirit in America,” said Dougherty, who cofounded O’Reilly Media Inc. and now runs Maker Media in California. “We see ourselves as builders, shapers, doers. Not just consumers.”
To Dougherty, makerspaces are more than people “playing and doing art.”
The movement could have a positive impact in commercial real estate, too. “As a tool for innovation, it has great utility for the economy and inspiration,” said Andrea Foertsch, a real estate consultant in Belmont who is studying the concept.
She helps building owners reposition their spaces, and lately that means “orienting toward a new breed of incubator,” said Foertsch. Makerspaces have “a role to play in the future of manufacturing. In terms of the idea, enhancement, and prototyping.”
It’s no secret that industrial manufacturing in the United States is shrinking as corporations continue to ship jobs overseas.
But the spirit of inventiveness still thrives here. And makerspaces, say practitioners, are an outlet for action.
“This is all very American, we always want a frontier, and here we are, building one,” said Jesa Damora, a Somerville marketer with a colorful office in the middle of Artisan’s Asylum.
Damora, who joined shortly after the Asylum opened, would seem to embody its very spirit.
“Having no idea what I would do, but knowing I wanted to continue with the group as it moved onward,” she said, she created FunnelCake Marketing to promote artists. “I just wanted to be a part of that energy, which was palpable every time I’d come in the door. I knew it would continue to inspire me,” she said.
That DIY ethic also is inspiring mini-makers.
Two months ago, makerspace H3XL opened in a warehouse in Burlington to give children a creative place to learn robotics and computer programming after school.
Launched by Lexington resident Henry Houh, the 7,000-square-foot drop-in center is where middle-schoolers dabble in high-tech Legos and use laser printers and other tools that are out of reach for most school districts.
“Already we’ve gotten calls from a school in New Hampshire . . . [which] wants to schedule a field trip,” said Houh, who runs four-week classes for $95 and charges a drop-in fee of $12.
In Lowell, Eric Sack, director of technologistics at Lowell Telecommunications Corp., is testing the waters for Lowell Makes, a makerspace that would teach everything from welding to knife skills. Sack and his partners, John Noto and Kamal Jain, are planning a public meeting to solicit feedback and are searching for a space downtown.
Even in its nascent stage, excitement is building.
“I can barely get a cup of coffee without someone asking, ‘When are you going to open?’ ” said Sack. “There’s a lot of underused space here and the right mix of people.”
In a city like Lowell where the creative economy has been thriving for over a decade, “It’s not too alien of a concept,” said Sack. “We are not reinventing the wheel, we are rolling it a different way.”