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New Business Hopes to Capitalize on Makers Movement

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By Meghan Rosen | KUSP Reports

Chris Yonge holds up a statuette made in the 3D powder printer. She's solid, but the printer can also create figures that are hollow. Her belt was laser cut from a thin piece of wood. Photo by Meghan Rosen

Chris Yonge is revving up the laser cutter for a demonstration at the MakersFactory in Santa Cruz. He’s standing in front of a small crowd of curious onlookers. They’re eager to catch a glimpse of the machine in action.

The laser cutter jolts into motion. Its mechanical arm has a fiery tip that burns a path through a piece of cardboard. Letter by letter, it outlines a single word: Sharks.

Chris opens the machine’s lid, pops the word out of the cardboard, and holds it up for people to see.

Girls: “Whoa, that’s cool!” “Wow!”

MakersFactory cofounders Chris Yonge and Dave Britton have been holding public events for people to come in and check out their new shop. The 800-square foot space is packed with people browsing through the workshop’s tools and displays. Chris and Dave are pointing out plaster and vinyl creations.

Here’s Dave: “What’s in this cabinet here are all 3D models made on the powder printing device. Everything was made on the computer first, drawn here, and then made in one pass. So nothing was assembled. The thing that usually amazes people is we can make something that actually works.”

The 3D printer looks like a beefed-up copy machine. In its long, shallow building compartment, a roller and inkjets take turns spreading thin films of powder, and spraying color and glue, until, layer by layer, a 3-dimensional object is formed.

The MakersFactory is part of a growing “do-it-yourself” movement that pairs creative people with the tools they need to complete their projects. Workspaces, or ‘hacker spaces’, like it are popping up throughout the Bay Area and the Central Coast. Some have sewing machines and silk screeners, others have band saws and bench grinders, but all provide access to exotic tools, and a community of inventive people that know how to use them.

John: “I came down with my two kids and we have an idea for a project. We’re hoping to use the 3D printers here.”

John Green is an engineer from San Jose. He’s also an aspiring toy designer. He has an idea for a puzzle with pieces in the shapes of different countries. He wants to make the pieces curved, so they fit together on a globe.

But, before he invests money in his idea, he needs to make sure it would work.

So he’s trying to use the 3D printer to make a prototype.

John: “It’s like you can just make all the pieces and see how they fit without having to spend a lot of money.”

But the Makers movement isn’t just for craftsmen and toy inventors, and the building materials aren’t just plastics and cardboard. Some spaces allow members to work with neon lights, molten metals, or even DNA.

Raymond: “Almost everybody wants to do something with DNA. And we help people transform a bacteria and splice in a jellyfish gene that makes it glow green under a black light.”

It’s genetic engineering 101, says Raymond McCauley, one of the founders of BioCurious, a brand-new 2400-square foot laboratory based in Sunnyvale that’s stocked with tools for molecular biology. He calls it a ‘hacker space’ for biotech.

Raymond: “We’ve got access to really sophisticated pieces of equipment like you would find in the best commercial and academic molecular biology labs.”

Raymond says they’ve been open for four months and already have 35 members. Several are moonlighting from jobs in industry or academia, and testing new project ideas before starting their own companies.

One group is trying to recreate the glue that African zebra mussels use to stick onto sail boats.

Raymond: “So that’s a project they’re working on now— how to genetically engineer a duplicate of this noxious pest, so you could use this biological glue to do good things. We could use it to patch concrete, and hold buildings together after earthquakes, and stuff like that.”

Biocurious, the MakersFactory and other hacker spaces like them provide access to the tools of industry. And once people learn how to use them, Raymond says, it’s amazing to see what they can do.

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