If you’ve ever tried to figure out how to make your gadget dreams a reality, Michael Salmon may be the man to see. He’s one of the founders of San Diego’s MakerPlace, an independent “hackerspace” that welcomes members to tinker with an array of power tools, gain knowledge about new fields in classes run by pros or in collaboration with others, or learn to design with the latest in 3D printing technology. Business writer Erin McDermott talked with Salmon recently about how his own vision came about, what small business people are doing at MakerPlace, and where the future of the “maker” movement is heading.
EM: How did MakerPlace come about? It’s pretty unique.
MS: I’ve always been a hands-on person—instead of sitting behind a computer dealing with websites, I’ve preferred to design tangible stuff and create it. Throughout school, I always based my projects around that: In wood shop, I would build skateboards; in design class I would design advertisements or silk-screen shirts. In college, I started working on a custom skateboard brand and afterward, while doing freelance design, I kept it going and started on the production part, selling it out of local skate shops. Later, I moved out to San Diego for a job. But after a while, I realized that working for someone else wasn’t for me.
My brother was out here too, so we decided to do the skateboard thing full-time: bought the machinery, did the trade-show circuit. We realized that what we were doing—high-end boards—really didn’t click because the market wasn’t there for it. So we took our machinery and tried to see what else we could do with it. With my experience in design and my brother’s in fabrication, we decided to branch out to anybody in whatever possible industry to see whom we could help out. We started doing stuff for the Navy, the aerospace industry, even consumers who had custom little gifts and trinkets. So we geared our shop toward that and opened in North Park, which is a little arts community, and were there for about three years and did really well.
One of the groups we always did a lot of work for was students, especially in architecture and design. They always had a lot of projects to run, but for us, it never felt right to charge them our full rate, but at the same time didn’t enjoy spending three days in row not pulling in a full-dollar value for it. So we started doing Student Days, which were cash deals for these guys to come in and do their stuff, which put a little money in our pocket but also helped them out, too. After that, we began trying to figure out how we could make that work better: Let them come in after-hours where they could pay us to use our equipment, so that we didn’t need to be there to babysit them.
This was all floating in the back of our heads when one of our customers came in and mentioned the same idea and asked if we ever thought of it. We were looking to move to a bigger space, and he said if we ever thought about doing it to let him know. My brother took his card and kind of put it on the back burner for a bit. When it came time to move out of that rented space, we made that phone call and it was “Let’s do it.”
We found a building on Craigslist that same day, pulled the trigger and just founded MakerPlace. We got the keys in December 2011 and had the doors open by March. We stripped everything, totally renovated, acquired the equipment, and got this place going. We still have Soul Ride going, which we operate out of here and which keeps us busy seven days a week, as well as growing and tweaking MakerPlace to make it the best it can possibly be right now.
EM: And you serve as an incubator, too?
MS: We have five small businesses operating out of here. We provide a turnkey solution to these guys and there’s also access to a conference room, printer services, administration services as far as the front desk receiving all of their phone calls.
EM: You offer new 3D printing technologies along with other types of traditional machinery. What are you encountering with the people who are using it?
MS: We have a lot of guys who are trying to come up with prototypes. With 3D printing now so accessible, there’s an opportunity for these people to create and come up with these prototypes they’ve had floating in their heads for quite some time—things that were otherwise unreachable at a decent cost. So I see a lot of guys come in who are just playing—downloading models online to print stuff for the fun of it. But I also have a lot of guys who are doing R&D work for their small companies, or even large companies. We have a couple of industrial-scale 3D printers that are a little more robust and some open source-style ones that are smaller, single-filament versions.
There’s a huge scope of what people are doing here. You’ve got guys with totally off-the-wall ideas and expect 3D printers to solve all problems. With this type of facility, you’ll always have everybody thinking there’s this cool tool above their knowledge base and that tool should be able to solve it, and that’s true with 3D printers. There are a lot of constraints that you have to operate within, but it’s really great to see the guys who really grasp those limitations and know how to exploit them and use them to their advantage. They come up with some really cool stuff.
EM: What type of things are they making?
MS: I’ve got guys who are making new skateboard products. Others are working on things like child-safety lock devices or housing for electronics. One guy was an old race car driver and is building 1/15th scale version of his race car. Some of it is pretty ambiguous—you look and you’re just not quite sure what that is. [laughs] We have one member who was working on something geothermal. I guess that technology was pretty outdated and he created a new fitting for it. He actually prototyped it here and then took the model he made on the 3D printer and sent it to his partner in China to have it manufactured. That was cool to see something go from drawing to prototype to actually go straight into manufacturing.
EM: MakerPlace just had its first birthday. What are your members like? Do you see a lot of interaction with the local business community?
MS: There’s a decent amount of our membership that are smallbusiness guys. Maybe not brick-and-mortar types, but a lot of designers and fabricators. Architecture students who have moved on and now have a lot of restaurant build-out and home design work. There are a lot of landscape architects who come in and do custom signage and fixtures for their projects. There’s also a lot of tech-based folks who are looking to get funding and are busy scrambling to get their prototypes and documentation. We have a patent attorney on site—he rents one of our incubator spaces and does a lot of work with these guys.
EM: So you’re there in the beating heart of this “Maker” scene. Where do you think it’s all going?
MS: Good question—that’s what we’re trying to figure out. It’s definitely on the rise, but one of our challenges is how to harness and ride that wave. Awareness is a big thing for us. We do a lot of events to bring people in. But this is also kind of like a glorified gym—people come and go. You have guys who are hobbyists and just want to come in here with a project and build. You have people who come in with a business and use the space to make money. And then you have the “makers” who are here for the sheer enjoyment of learning and growing and capturing as much knowledge in every realm that they possibly can.
Trying to tap into those types is the tricky thing—they’re so spread out. It’s not like I can go sit at Home Depot for 12 hours and hand out fliers and capture everyone I need to capture. It’s really about trying to figure out strategically where to hit: Do we do engineering firms, the biotech stuff, aerospace, the military? It’s really trying to captivate the audience that we’re going for—because there’s a little bit of this in everybody, besides the people who are completely hands off. I’d say the majority of people don’t mind fixing things themselves. And for those who do, it’s about trying to inspire them to think beyond their normal scope of what they’ve been able to do. Let them know the access to what they have here—the laser cutters, the CNC plasma cutters, the 3D printers. Really, any little idea you’ve had or things you’ve wanted to do, it’s now possible to make it happen. If you don’t necessarily know how, you can take one of our classes to get a bit more knowledge.
Another really cool aspect of this place is the collaboration—the stuff that happens in-house. We’ve got guys that created businesses just by sitting here collaborating on things with other guys. And that’s a pretty cool thing to see happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.