Making Space: Growing the Maker Movement in Winston-Salem

20 minute read

As dusk begins to fall outside the open garage door, snippets of conversation make their way through a smattering of whirring, rattling moving noises that surround the near-dozen people conversing and crafting.

Parked just inside the garage door is an electric bike, custom designed with large tires and an extra battery for long trips. Its builder is chatting with two others who are using a digital vinyl cutter to create t-shirts for their online business.

A woman sits at the entrance of the garage, putting a spinning wheel into motion with her feet, as she converts wool into yarn. The heavier whirring of the traditional machine undergirds the lighter buzzing and chirping of a tabletop 3D printer stationed in the middle of the room. Its operator offers instruction to two other men who are building a 3D printer of their own from scratch.

Leaning against the open garage door, a man in a battered baseball hat surveys the scene of inventive commotion, periodically talking with the others to learn about where they are with their projects and what’s new since they’ve spoken.

The almost-dozen people gathered could be in any garage—doing their tinkering, crafting and creating in companionable community. It could be any garage in your neighborhood, but this garage belongs to the Center for Design Innovation (CDI), anchored in the south end of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

Last year, CDI invited the man in the battered hat—Alan Shelton—to use the workshop as a semi-permanent location for his weekly gathering.

This gathering is MIXXER, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating space for the makers of Winston-Salem. For the last three years, Alan Shelton has been shepherding this group of makers and preparing the way for Winston-Salem to join the global maker movement through MIXXER, the city of art & innovation’s first dedicated makerspace.

Making: A Movement

The maker movement, or the maker community as it is sometimes called, was first named by Make, a magazine known as “the bible for makers” by some, in 2005 to describe the growing number of people who want to create or tinker with technologies to develop their own products and solutions.

The term “maker,” while frequently used to refer to people who work with electronics and 3D printing, encompasses anyone who makes anything with their own hands, expertise or creativity: from traditional making activities like woodworking and metalworking, to creating with the latest cutting-edge technologies—software, 3D printers, microcontrollers, drones, etc.

The maker movement is tinkering, yes, but tinkering has become an economic force to be reckoned with. The market for maker materials and services is estimated to reach over $8 billion by 2020, and the maker movement adds $29 billion to the world economy every year. The U.S. alone has approximately 135 million adults who participate in the maker movement.

Several characteristics have contributed to the maker movement’s rapid ascent.

For one, technological or digital tools developed for design and manufacturing industries—3D printers and scanners, computer software and laser cutters—have become affordable enough for individual use. Not only are industry-grade technologies more accessible than ever, but they allow individuals to “manufacture” out of their homes, garages or schools.

Second, as makers formed into communities, they did so with a desire to share knowledge and ideas. Open sourcing became common-place, as people sought to share their discoveries and shortcuts, aided by the easy flow of tutorials, crowdfunding and design files and codes online.

“What we now call maker culture is just an evolution of people wanting to tap back into the ability to make—the art and science of making things yourself,” Alan says.

Maker to Maker

Perhaps the most basic tenet of maker culture is this: anyone can make.

“The thing that I love most about the maker community in Winston-Salem is that we have all these different people from all walks of life with different ways of looking at things and all different skill sets,” says Alan.

A hallmark of MIXXER—and maker culture as a whole—is the diversity that underpins the auspices of the movement.

“When you put people with different ideas and skill sets in the same place, amazing things can happen—opportunities that never before existed all of a sudden are real,” Alan says.

While maker culture in Winston-Salem is still fledgling in comparison to other cities like San Francisco, New York City and Atlanta, the city of art and innovation has a deep pool of diverse makers who individually hold pieces of the puzzle that is maker culture.

The Hobbyist

Robert Gusek is a software programmer with Inmar, Inc. When not working his day job, Bob spends a lot of time tinkering and making with his personal flock of 3D printers.

Technology has been Bob’s passion since childhood. His father introduced Bob to computers at a young age and his interests in technology grew into other areas—including 3D printing. For many years, 3D printers were too expensive for most individuals, but Bob kept track of the advances in the field until they became affordable. At a Maker Faire in Raleigh, Bob met a maker from Winston-Salem who helped him build his first 3D printer.

“It’s been non-stop ever since,” Bob says with a smile. “I have four printers now.”

Bob uses his 3D printers for all sorts of projects. He enjoys building 3D printers and modifying them, and he prints parts for remote-controlled planes, quadcopters and other practical uses. He’s also participated in the e-Nable project, a group of 3D printers that makes hands for children who need limb assistive devices, including modifying the design, which won him an award at a maker contest at the Forge, a makerspace in Greensboro.

In true maker fashion, Bob takes what he’s learned in building and using printers and shares it with whomever is interested.

“The maker community is all about sharing,” says Bob, “whether it’s ideas or knowledge or skills. That’s one of the things that I love about makers—I may not know how to do something, but if I go to a place like MIXXER, I can find someone who does and who is willing to teach me how to do it.”

Frequently, Bob is the one teaching makers. He helps other enthusiasts build 3D printers, helps out with the Girls on Fire robotics team that Inmar sponsors and teaches classes at the Forge.

The Entrepreneur

Fay Horwitt is an advocate for creating an inclusive entrepreneurial community in Winston-Salem, first through initiatives like InnovateHER and SynHERgy and now through her role as program director with Venture Café Winston-Salem.

“My involvement with Winston-Salem’s maker culture happened organically—and somewhat accidentally,” says Fay.

As Fay found herself working with women entrepreneurs through events and training, she began to notice the large number of women makers with businesses around handmade goods: paper goods, fashion accessories, jewelry, paintings, candles, natural products.

“Winston-Salem has this strength in handmade goods that keeps bubbling to the surface,” says Fay. “It’s important that we make sure this sector of entrepreneurism in our city gets the support that it needs to thrive.”

To help support this group, Fay started Handmade by HER, a workshop focused on marketing and promotion for businesses in arts, crafting or handmade goods, which partnered with the Krankies Craft Fair so that workshop attendees got their own vendor tables at the fair.

“The response to the women’s display at the fair was amazing, and it made me start thinking about what is next,” says Fay. “The maker culture in Winston-Salem needs wrap-around support to help with training and business opportunities to help their businesses grow.”

Promoting a strong maker culture in Winston-Salem also contributes to a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, and groups like SynHERgy are providing support to makers and their businesses to help develop that strong culture.

The Researcher

Philip Brown knows the importance of education in maker culture. He was first exposed to 3D printing in his undergraduate mechanical engineering curriculum at UNC Charlotte. His interest would blossom into a career as faculty in the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and a product development engineer with Wake Forest Innovations, the commercialization arm of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

“I was intrigued by the process of 3D printing and became a teaching assistant in the lab, which gave me access to advanced design tools,” says Philip. “In grad school at Wake Forest, I was privileged to have an advisor who encouraged me to explore those curiosities and build up 3D printing capabilities.”

Philip has built up an additive manufacturing lab with making capabilities that include a robust machine shop, a variety of 3D printers—from extruded filament and powder printers to a high performance, manufacturing grade printer—and a suite of software capabilities.

“A lot of the things that I do on a day-to-day basis use the same tools and processes that makers use,” says Philip. “We help a variety of researchers and clinicians at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center by designing and printing things for them.”

The things that Philip and his team develop cover a wide range of medical needs, including research tools and equipment, medical devices and anatomical models from imaging that help surgeons plan and practice procedures—all based on developing solutions to problems that others bring to them.

The innovations that Philip and his team create are made possible by advancements in technology that stem from the maker movement.

“When you look back at those advances, often you see that they occurred because knowledge was shared across disciplines,” says Philip. “The maker movement can be a cross pollinator where individuals with a wide variety of past knowledge and expertise come to learn and make together.”

The Artist

Jennifer McCormick is a medical illustrator by trade. Drawing on her expertise in art and science, Jennifer creates illustrations for legal proceedings by using medical records from patients to visualize the trauma they suffered. The medical illustrations she creates are used by expert witnesses in court testimony to explain clearly and quickly to juries about a person’s injuries.

In addition to her medical illustration, Jennifer is also a fine artist who incorporates depictions of medical elements—ventricles, sinuses, bones, etc.—into her art pieces. She communicates themes of healing and hope by creating pieces from x-rays. Her art led her into the maker community, including a spot in Piedmont Craftsmen.

“Through my art, I developed a curiosity in creating new things,” says Jennifer. “It’s fun to do something that hasn’t been done before. The curiosity sparks new projects.”

To create her pieces, Jennifer has branched into several kinds of making, including digital art, wood carving, electronics and encaustic.

“When I have something that I want create, I just dive in and figure out how to do it,” says Jennifer. “I learn the skills I need to make these art pieces. I think that’s what a maker does: they just get in there and they start figuring it out.”

Each new project requires discovering new ways of creating. Each design has its own obstacles and challenges, and completing the project requires troubleshooting a million different things.

“I spend so much time on these projects with all the decisions and solutions I have to develop, but I feel so enriched for it,” Jennifer says. “Every time I go down the rabbit hole with one of these ideas of mine, I feel richer for having discovered all these solutions that make new projects work.”

Zero to Maker

And then there’s Alan. The Visionary, you might call him.

“I was that little boy who liked to take things apart. I wanted to know how things were put together and what made mechanical things work,” says Shelton.

From Matchbox cars, it wasn’t long before he graduated to real cars.

“And when I was old enough to buy my first car—an old, beat-up Chevy Nova—it wasn’t long before I was taking it apart,” Alan remembers. “I wanted to make it better; if it wasn’t broken, I would break it so that I could fix it.”

Thus started a life of making. From restoring cars with friends to building architectural structures, Shelton has made a bit of everything. He runs his own design and build business, putting together unique handcrafted objects of all types for his clients.

“I would rather buy a tool to build my own of just about anything,” says Alan.

And there was something about making with other people that really hit home for Alan.

“As I got older, I found like-minded people to work on projects with,” he says. “We used problem-solving skills because we were always working on a tight budget and didn’t make money off of buying other peoples’ solutions.”

His individual and collaborative projects led Alan to a realization: a piece was missing for him and many other makers in the community—they needed a place to work or access to tools. Or both.

“Sometimes people don’t understand how much trouble it is to build simple things when you just don’t have a place to do it,” says Alan. “We hear a lot in our community about building a culture of entrepreneurship. But if your skill set requires you to use tools and equipment to create products or provide services—if that’s your entrepreneurial avenue, but you can’t afford the tools or have the space, then you have no entry point into that culture of entrepreneurship.”

Alan could have worked at creating a place for himself—putting all his effort and resources into a personal workshop.

“It just didn’t make sense to work really hard for my own little corner, with the few tools that I could afford,” says Alan.

Then Alan saw a TED talk on makerspaces, and suddenly all his free-floating ideas started fitting together.

“I immediately knew a makerspace is what I had been missing,’” Alan says. “I had tried to piece it all together on my own, but it seemed so obvious now. Winston-Salem needed a makerspace.”

What is a Makerspace?

A busy scene at MIXXER makerspace

“When I talk with people about MIXXER, I usually start with the question: “Do you know what a makerspace is?” Sometimes the answer is yes. Most often, the answer is no.”

As Alan began recruiting followers for the makerspace, he discovered that his first obstacle was helping people understand what a makerspace was.

When he gets a negative response, Alan has a follow-up question: Do you know what the YMCA is?

“I’ve never had anybody say no to that,” he says with a grin.

Alan then explains makerspace this way: If you become a member of the YMCA, through that membership you have access to all the resources at that facility—the pool, basketball courts, fitness equipment, saunas—everything in the building. Plus, you can participate in classes, socials, events and programs—all for one membership fee.

“If you apply all those same concepts to a building that’s full of tools, equipment and workspace, that’s what makerspace is and that’s what MIXXER is going to be,” says Alan.

Alan thought that if everyone worked together and pooled their knowledge and resources, Winston-Salem could have the missing piece to its entrepreneurial community.

“I had no idea how to start an organization, but at some point it dawned on me that somebody has to move this forward and make it a community project,” he says. “And then I realized that somebody was me.”

Maker Advocates

Alan began spreading the message of makerspaces, and by August of 2014, he had built a following of other individuals who either identified or were learning to identify as makers. He spent a lot of time getting out in the community so that MIXXER would align with the goals of the community as it grew.

In 2014, Alan and his merry band of makers held a kickoff party for MIXXER, which would be incorporated as a non-profit organization a year later. Afterward, the MIXXERs met once a month in coffee shops and other places across town for a long time. All the while, Alan was laying the groundwork for MIXXER as a makerspace.

As Alan found others who shared both his vision and his passion, MIXXER assembled a board of directors who could help fill in the gaps needed to make the makerspace a reality. This included local entrepreneurs Mark and Janet Shill, who created Intelligent Business Solutions, a health care software development company, as well as Joshua Moe, a start-up entrepreneur and chief executive officer of the next generation learning company Odiga. They also brought on Lucinda Brogan, a metalsmith, jeweler and nonprofit savant who could help them navigate the new waters of operating as a 501(c)3.

“MIXXER’s board of directors brings a variety of strengths to the table, from experience with start-ups and nonprofits to the financial and maker skills that help a makerspace find its feet,” Alan says. “Without them and the support of so many others, MIXXER wouldn’t have made it this far.”

In 2016, the leadership of the Center for Design Innovation invited Alan and his MIXXERs to use the workshop space in their state-of-the-art building. Alan holds the weekly MIXXER nights there on Mondays, but hopes that soon MIXXER will change from being a meeting of makers into a physical makerspace. His dream is a location just north of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and across from the Arts Based School.

The building being renovated will provide space for makers of all kinds, providing workshops and tools for woodworking, metalworking, 3D printing, digital projects and others. The nonprofit MIXXER will have memberships for all levels of makers—from those who do projects on a sporadic scale to those who make on a daily basis.

“We are hoping to sign a lease for the building within a few months, and we would like to be open by this fall,” says Alan. “The building is nearly perfect for our makerspace; it only needs a few updates and more parking.”

“Behind the Makers’ Doors” Illustration by Jennifer McCormick – Copyright 2017

Maker to Market

Alan’s vision of maker culture in Winston-Salem is one that is as unique as the city itself. As the MIXXERs begin to pack up their projects on Monday night, Robert Gusek and Philip Brown sit with Alan around a worktable. A 3D printer—the last project standing on this particular MIXXER night—continues to chirp on the table behind them, punctuating the conversation the trio is having on what makerspace might mean for their city.

“I think that Winston is still missing a piece,” Alan says. “We’ve got makers here. I know engineers,” he says, gesturing to Philip. “I know woodworkers and machinists, but the city is missing a place where they can all meet each other.”

“Except coffee shops,” he continues with a grin. “And you can’t really prototype at a coffee shop.”

“And a makerspace filled with makers can spark all kinds of ideas and projects,” Philip adds.

“Those kinds of connections can bump people down unexpected paths,” agrees Alan. “They result in interesting things, things like small businesses and other entrepreneurial activities.”

“I know a lot of people who run their businesses out of makerspaces,” Bob adds. The 3D printer behind him beeps in agreement. “Lots of people support their small-batch, handmade goods businesses—the kinds you see on Etsy—by using the shared resources of makerspaces.”

“And I think that when people get access to the resources of a makerspace, some of them will take it to the next level,” Alan says. “They’ll start partnerships and share knowledge that will feed into the entrepreneurial community Winston is trying to build.”

Bob pulls up an application on his smartphone. “Makerspaces also become a resource for businesses that need trade services,” he says. “They come to places like MIXXER looking for people who can make the things they need—anything from metalworking to t-shirts.” As he speaks, he scrolls through the application and shows Alan examples of businesses seeking people to make for them.

“They also need people with technical skills,” says Alan. “This city needs technical talent of all kinds—machinists, programmers, you name it. One way to find that talent is by providing a place where people can learn those skills, like a makerspace.”

Philip has been largely silent through the exchange, though he’s nodding his agreement.

“I get excited for the educational opportunities of a strong maker culture,” Philip says. “A makerspace gives people the resources they need to gain skills that are valuable in their careers and that build a better maker culture.”

He continues, “Beyond a makerspace, Winston-Salem has a unique mix of institutions that could benefit from being involved in a growing maker culture—companies, universities, arts foundations. The unique mix that our city has is gold; it adds to the diversity of our maker community.”

“In general, I think a strong maker culture adds a layer of cool to a city,” Alan adds.

Bob suggests the idea of hosting a mini-Maker Faire in Winston-Salem. “That kind of exhibition will bring people into the city to check it out, and a makerspace itself will bring makers in from the Triad area, not just Winston-Salem.”

“And that’s really what we want in a maker culture,” says Alan. “We want to draw people in because, at the end of the day, maker culture is about building a community.”

The network that makerspaces create is a big sell for everyone at the table. The trio probably wouldn’t meet in the course of their everyday lives, but they cross paths at MIXXER.

“I don’t just want Winston-Salem to have a makerspace,” Bob says, as the 3D printer falls silent. “I want Winston-Salem to be a city of makers.”

Making the Future

As Alan turns the lights off in the CDI workshop, the sun sets behind the Winston-Salem skyline. He looks toward the direction of the warehouse that will be MIXXER’s permanent home, hidden just behind the buildings in the skyline.

All the MIXXERs are gone for the night; the workshop quiet behind him. The hum and whirr of their work is only a fraction of what Alan hopes will fill MIXXER’s makerspace in a few short months.

Rolling down the garage door of the workshop, Alan turns back to the skyline. In his vision for Winston-Salem, he sees the maker community contributing to the growth of the city, starting downtown and radiating out, building connections to other communities.

All it needs is to be built. And that is what maker communities are for—to build.

by Jessica Brown