The Rapidian

Maker space fosters diversity, continues to encourage cross pollination

GR Makers space is a 9,000 square foot workshop/lab on the West Side that fosters collaboration and ingenuity.
Samuel Bowles

Samuel Bowles /Eric Tank

Did you know?

Did you know that GR Makers hosts a free social every Wednesday from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m.? The event is open to the public and is designed for members to share with the public what they are working on. 

An arcade machine designed and built by a member

An arcade machine designed and built by a member /Eric Tank

3-D printer

3-D printer /Eric Tank

On June 28, GR Makers celebrated their official grand opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony. The workshop and studio have been operating for the past year at 401 Hall Street suite 125. Now it's official. The maker space has accumulated an abundance of tools and technology within the past year. Nearly 9,000 square feet has been utilized to foster collaboration and inspiration for inventors. 

The business is grounded on three core values of expression, entrepreneurship and education. These three pillars make up the ethos of GR Makers' mission. 

The group emphasizes the cross pollination of ideas and talent, but realizes the personality profiles of its members have to be respected and encouraged in order for authentic collaboration to bloom. 

"We are not overly focused on artificially forcing that [collaboration] to happen. If people just want to come in and tinker and play and build the thing they want to build and they don't want to be bothered, it's fine," says co-founder Samuel Bowles. 

"A lot of the most innovative people we encounter are not always the most social people, and that's ok," says Bowles. "I would say if you want to tinker around, come, do it." 

Yet the team is strategic in its efforts to foster a collaborative spirit. One of the ways they accomplish this is by hosting a free social gather on Wednesday nights. The event is structured around an informal open night comprised of lightning talks about what member makers are currently working on. Folks can ask questions, learn what is happening, glean valuable information and make connections. Bowles says that they intentionally keep the topics broad. 

"We want to allow people to interpret what 'maker' means for themselves," says Bowles. 

Membership is at about 70 people of various backgrounds, from engineering, to art and trades crafts. The diversity is conducive to innovation and growth. 

The initial 3,000 square feet of space began as a workshop comprising of a wood shop with tools including a table saw, router, circular sander, drill press and grinder to name a few. There is also a lathe, mill, large format laser cutter, mobile blacksmithing, welding equipment and arbor press. 

"We've been growing organically one tool at a time," says Bowles. 

Recently the space has grown to 9,000 square feet that includes a tech room complete with a computer lab, 3-D printers and a kitchen. A room stocked with donated "junk," essentially upcycled equipment including electronics and such, that members have access to in order to deconstruct and experiment with.

GR Makers began two years ago in a garage. 

"GR Makers started as a group of friends who where getting together in a garage hacking on things, creating things, exploring and making," says Bowles.  

Local software company Mutually Human liked the idea and helped fund the idea as a business with money and space. Mark Vanholstrom, president of Mutually Human, traveled with Bowles to the San Francisco Bay area to do research. They visited over a dozen maker spaces gathering feedback about what works and what doesn't. The two attended the Maker Faire, largest of its kind with over a quarter million people in attendance. And they interviewed dozens of maker space founders. 

What they learned was that most maker spaces were relatively small and many were struggling. For GR Makers, they borrowed elements from what they thought worked best and pieced them together. 

A large part of tier funding comes from corporate sponsors that donate tools and dollars. Individual sponsors typically donate extra tools. According to Bowles the Grand Rapids community has been very supportive, which is in large part what makes this venture a success. 

This year's ArtPrize will see an installation at the UICA build by GR Makers members. The team consists of a variety of diverse backgrounds including an artist and electrician. The project is a four story kinetic sculpture with thousands of LEDs suspended from the staircase of the UICA. An iPhone app is being developed to control the robotics. 

As part of their community outreach, GR Makers has partnered with a neighborhood nonprofit called Young Makers. GR Makers hosts the group for Maker Camp, where 24 kids get access to educational experience, science, technology, engineering and math. Young Makers was born out of GR Makers, yet remains a separate entity. 

"We are in the least educated neighborhood in Grand Rapids," says Bowles. "We believe that if you really want to get kids to innovate, think outside the box and create new things, they have to be able to get tactile, get their hands on things and make things."  

GR Makers is also preparing for its Lego league, a workshop designed to teach kids about robotics through the use of Legos.  

To learn more about GR Makers visit the website here

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