If you could make anything, what would it be? That is the question that makers around the world ask themselves as they gear up to create a project for Maker Faire , “the greatest show and tell on earth”, with events in over 40 countries.
We bounced down to Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend – described (accurately, we think) as “part science fair, part county fair”– and are delighted to bring you six great projects and the inside scoop on the teams that made them.
In case you’re just now hearing about all this, here’s a bit about the event:
“Brought to you by Maker Media, Maker Faire is a gathering of fascinating, curious people who enjoy learning and who love sharing what they can do. It’s a venue for makers to show examples of their work and interact with others about it. A chance for tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, and students to bring their creations out of their garages and into the spotlight.”
Remember that epic battle scene in Transformers where Bumblebee fights the Megatron on top of the Empire State Building? Well, the team at Megabots is making that come to life with a giant, 16-foot tall, 12-ton robot that fights other robots. Did we mention it also fires cannonballs at 120-miles an hour? Talk about a dream job.
This small team of mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, designers, welders, and machinists based out of Hayward, CA, uses cutting-edge robotics technology to create and pilot its giant fighting robot, “Mk III”. Mk. III won’t be battling another mech yet, but at Maker Faire Bay Area, it will completely demolish a Honda Prius.
Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
Brett Walach, Senior Software Engineer at Particle, hasn’t slept in two days. He and his team of five engineers, product managers, and designers have been hard at work assembling a kinetic sculpture flown in from different parts of the country.
With team members in Illinois, Minneapolis, Utah, and San Francisco, this distributed project team had to coordinate across time and space, making sure they worked together closely so that each panel of the sculpture could be assembled together for Maker Faire.
They are using their project to teach kids about the technology behind their full-stack Internet of Things device platform. By using the sculpture, kids learn how data is captured, encrypted, processed, and finally, consumed in devices and other endpoints.
The team formed over a common goal: creating an educational tool that was fun for kids. In the beginning, the team held a lot of design discussions to determine how to build the machine and represent such a complicated topic to a kid-friendly audience. They laid out specifications, making sure that everybody used the same components so that the machine would actually work come faire time. They used a common framework: a pegboard, to layout and communicate their plans so that when the panels were assembled in California, they would be compatible.
But the project wasn’t without its hiccups. Originally planned for each panel to interact and depend on the other, the team decided to scrap this idea once they learned that each panel received and processed the data inputted differently. It was just going to take too long for each panel to wait on the other before it started working.
However, by the time I talked to them on Friday, the panels were up and running, and lots of kids were having fun interacting with the different components. What did Brett recommend for other teams working on projects together? “Regular meetings to stay on track and lots of positive encouragement to the rest of the group.” That sounds about right.
Life-Sized Mouse Trap
“Raise your hand if you’ve heard of a Rube Goldberg machine”, says Mark, the Life-Sized Mouse Trap’s creator and team lead. As you’d expect at an event dedicated to crazy contraptions, nearly everyone in the crowd of kids, teachers, and parents raises their hand.
And that’s exactly what this thing is: a maze of technicolor-painted rebar, repurposed plywood, and found objects. Triggered by a bowling ball, ending with a 2-ton safe dropped on a pile of over-ripe bananas, all powered by simple machines. Needless to say, it’s a crowd-pleaser.
Mark and his team have been working on the Life-Sized Mouse Trap for well over a decade. Given that everyone on the project is a volunteer, team members churn in and out fairly often. Rose, Mark’s long-time teammate and wife, says that when a new member wants to join the group, their personality and ability to collaborate are far more important that the skills they offer.
Veteran team members buddy up with newcomers and help them find their place on the project, taking their skills and personality into account. If a newbie is handy with power tools, for example, but prefers to mostly work alone, they might find a role assembling the fence that keeps curious kids from toddling into the trap’s moving pieces.
When it comes to adding new mouse trap components, Mark is fond of providing high-level direction, then giving team members the autonomy to add their own creative touches as they build it out. That agency fosters a sense of ownership, which helps team members bond.
Trust is critical, Rose tells me. And no wonder: confidence in each other’s work is a matter of safety. It takes five days to assemble the contraption, including a 30-foot crane boom and the aforementioned 2-ton safe. If the pieces aren’t set just right, injuries happen. They may not do trust falls, but they do a lot of trust lifts.
This dodecahedron sculpture is part technology project, part art project, and most of all: very beautiful. It is composed of 12 pentagons and uses internal projectors to display mathematical models of iteration, fractals and symmetry. It is a project by Clifford Ingham and classmate, part of a master’s thesis project from Cal State East Bay.
Though the art piece turned out to be beautiful and harmonious, forming a team for this project was tough. Cliff told me that because his project didn’t begin with a design-centered problem, it was difficult to align the team around exactly what they were creating. As an art critique project, there were no set project specifications; it was something he and his co-collaborator had to come up with together. Sometimes they were completely aligned on project direction and requirements, and often they found their collaboration went best working in parallel paths toward the same goal.
After many prototypes and experimentations with code, design, and multi-media, Cliff and his collaborator created an installation of 5 sculptures that are quite dazzling. Read more about it on the project website.
Acme Muffineering Co.
What do muffins, cupcakes, and steamed bao dumplings have in common? You can scoot or pedal around in 3-foot versions of them at Maker Faire, thanks to the Acme Muffineering Co. They’ll even provide a little coaching if you want to make one of your own.
What started out as (what else?) a Burning Man project has grown into a loose collective of giant mobile cupcake-making enthusiasts. True to it’s playa-dusted roots, the Acme team thrives on autonomy and creative expression. They have no leader, no org structure, and everyone builds their own vehicle-slash-pastry. They stay connected through an email list where they exchange tips and ideas, or maybe offer up, say, a used electric wheelchair for spare parts.
What they forego in structure, they gain in creative freedom. The only real rule is that no mechanical parts can be visible outside the muffin – which can be decorated any way they like with faux fur, LEDs, painted ping-pong balls (looks exactly like sprinkles!), and fabric. Inside, the muffin might be powered by an electric Razor scooter, a child’s tricycle… anything that’ll make it go.
“Just enough” consistency was clearly the right choice for this team of Muffineers. Some build realistic-looking muffins, others build fantastical blinky-lighted cupcakes, and one member, inspired by her Asian heritage, built a steamed bao bun. But when you see them gliding toward you en masse, somehow, it all makes perfect sense.
Les Machines de L’île
Stroll past the 6-foot, human-ridable, mechanical ant, and you can’t help but think of Jules Verne. Which may be just as Les Machines de L’île intended, seeing as they hail from Verne’s hometown of Nantes, France. A joint venture between theater company La Machine and the City of Nantes, Les Machines de L’île is a team of skilled artisans dedicated to wonder and whimsy – and promoting the city’s image as a center for creativity while they’re at it.
Some of the team’s larger projects, like a 40-foot mechanical elephant that can take a payload of 49 passengers for a stroll around the Île de Nantes, require up to 100 people working together. The ant, a small project by their standards, was built by a team of about 50. Regardless of scale, each project draws on a wide array of skills: architects, welders, woodworkers, software engineers, painters, hydraulics specialists… about 30 disciplines in all.
At the start of a new project, Les Machines de L’île’s lead designer produces a detailed sketch and shares it with his directors. The directors then go off and do an implementation assessment with their respective teams (woodworking, welding, software, etc). They collaborate with the designer to modify the design until it’s fully feasible, then get to work.
There’s a generous amount of tolerance for failure built into the whole process, given its experimental nature. Their next major project, a 300-foot tall structure called The Heron Tree, will be their most ambitious yet. It’s in the sketch-and-assess phase now, and set to open in 2021. How will they build it? Not even they know at this point. But with their collaborative, flexible design process, it seems certain they’ll pull it off one way or another.
Maker Faire’s flagship events are May 19-21 in the San Francisco Bay Area, September 23-24 in New York City, and later this year in Chicago (dates TBD). They also host smaller events in cities around the world, all year long. Check one out, get inspired, and form a Maker team of your own!
–This post brought to you by our dynamic duo reporting team, Sarah Goff Dupont and Natalie Mendes
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Also published on Medium.