There’s a myth in business of an inventor coming up with the next big idea tinkering in his or her garage. Well, the next big idea might not come from a garage, but from a maker space. These are part community workshop, part science club. While maker spaces have been popping up around the country for several years, they’ve come to Birmingham more recently.
Red Mountain Makers
A couple of people clump around a worktable at a storefront in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood. On the table sits what’s been dubbed the LED array. Wall-sized rectangles of PVC pipe are anchored to a wooden base with circuit boards drilled into the wood.
Across this frame stretch strings of LEDs, as if Christmas lights were hung in a grid. The lights fade from one color to the next as Baird Castleberry examines them.
“So the ones that are miswired you can see when the light goes by, when it’ll fire on the wrong color, turn red when it’s supposed to turn green,” said Castleberry. “So we’re going back and double checking the connections.”
This array is the latest project by the Red Mountain Makers. They plan to put it up in the front window of their workspace. There the light will shine through frosted glass panes allowing passersby to see color patterns, text or simple animations.
Red Mountain Makers is what’s known as a maker space. The idea is that instead of toiling alone in their basements, hobbyists gather together to share and collaborate.
“People are like batteries, the more you hook together the more the wattage goes up,” said Shawn Pearson, vice-chair of the group.
Pearson says members had visited maker spaces in other cities, before organizing Red Mountain Makers 2 years ago. They made their own move from basement meetings to this permanent space earlier this year. There are about two dozen dues paying members with many more floating through.
Shirley Hicks says the appeal of a maker space is its flexibility and freedom which is different from a corporate research lab.
“This is what’s exciting thing about a group like this,” said Hicks. “It’s not defined. It’s amorphous. The edges are fuzzy.”
There’s a mix of individual and group projects, such as the LED array. Some members take a programming bent. They’re also fixing a 3-D printer.
“When it’s all said and done we want this to be an excellent place for people to come and if they have an idea, they can make it real,” said Shawn Pearson.
Nearby in Avondale, another maker group is forming. Heather Spencer Holmes directs MakeBHM. Make is less than a year old and with woodworking, ceramics and a small darkroom, this group has a more traditional and artistic focus.
“I like to say we’re rocking it old school over here with our power tools,” said Holmes.
Those tools are partly why furniture maker Zade Denny is here.
“We were working out of our driveway,” said Denny. “And so to have a real space with a roof with tools is awesome.”
For all the fun that happens in these maker spaces, it’s not merely a case of people playing with expensive toys. It can mean business. Ford has partnered with maker spaces. The company Square, which allows smart phones to take credit cards, developed its technology through one of these groups. Some states and local governments are funding maker spaces to spur innovation.
“Innovation is a cultural phenomenon,” said Cynthia Lohrke, a Samford University business professor. “You can’t implant it. It has to sort of come about. And this is a natural organic place for that to happen.”
Lohrke says the fact these maker spaces are forming in Birmingham speaks to an entrepreneurial energy in the city. One business has already spun off from Make. So while places such as Memphis, Atlanta and Huntsville have longer running maker communities, Birmingham is taking its own seat at the table. A table covered with LEDs, circuit boards and PVC pipe.