DIY is the new black. Or at least President Obama seems to think so. Back in June, while hosting a Maker Faire on the White House Lawn, he created a national “Day of Making” (June 18th) and issued a challenge to America’s mayors: Get behind the “maker movement,” or get left behind. Memphis’ A C Wharton signed on the very same week.
T he maker movement is essentially an old idea — do-it-yourself — applied to some very new technology: things like robotics and 3D modeling. Promulgated through books, magazines, and online forums, the movement encourages people to get in the garage and tinker with technology until they have built something better, faster, smaller, cheaper. Then they can start their own companies, or, the theory goes, sell their patents. The idea has been getting a lot of traction in places like San Francisco (Noisebridge) and MIT (Fab Labs).
Now Memphis has a shot at getting its very own maker space. At Forge, a converted warehouse at the west end of Broad Avenue, artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs will be able to weld their own bike racks, build a self-driving car, or 3D-print a prototype for a medical device. Tentatively scheduled to open in October, Forge is currently in the last stages of a crowdfunding campaign.
The woman behind Forge is Elizabeth Lemmonds — and she’s not what you’d expect. Formerly a professor of English literature at the University of Memphis, Lemmonds says she didn’t own a computer until she was 24 years old. Since then, she’s been a corporate trainer, a curriculum developer, and, most recently, a startup coach at Memphis’ StartCo. Memphis recently sat down with Lemmonds to chat about crowdfunding, the power of poetry, and 3D-printed rocket parts.
How do you go from a self-professed Luddite to a tech entrepreneur in just 15 years? One of my favorite quotes is Henry James’ “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” Fifteen years ago, I thought there was no future ahead for me apart from teaching literature. But it has become my motto throughout life to really look broadly at what opportunities arise, because you never know what path is gonna open for you.
How did you get interested in the maker movement? It started in the spring of 2013. A friend had completely fallen in love with the book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson, and she recommended it to me. I realized there were places like TechShop and MIT’s Fab Labs out there. And I started asking the question, why doesn’t Memphis have a place like that?
What makes you think a maker space is right for Memphis? I think it’s perfect for Memphis for a few reasons. We’re a very entrepreneurial city; we’re a very creative city. But at the same time, we’re a very diverse city and a very blue-collar city. Here at Forge, we’re looking at some really emerging technologies, things like a more prolific use of CAD and 3D modeling. But we’re also looking at things like welding and woodworking and screen-printing — things that are very traditional but still very much part of the maker movement.
What kind of equipment do you have so far? So far we have a vinyl plotter, a 3D printer, some welding equipment, woodworking equipment, a couple of screen-printing presses, a kiln, a sewing machine, Dremel tools, wood-burning tools, soldering irons. We will continue to grow our assets in the first six months to a year, but we definitely have enough to get going. (Note: Unlimited monthly memberships at Forge cost $99. Those who join early will be given a discounted monthly rate. Visit forgememphis.com for more information.)
Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about 3D printing. What kind of applications do you see for that technology? Well, for instance, NASA recently 3D-printed a rocket injector part. And that’s amazing not just because they can print something that can be used in a rocket, but also because they can send a 3D printer into space and print on demand. There are also a number of biomedical uses. I read somewhere that you can print stem cells onto a biodegradable scaffolding and actually grow a human organ.
Are those the kinds of things you’ll be doing at Forge? The model we have right now is more for hobbyists and early-stage prototyping. It’s more of a gateway into 3D printing. But down the line, if there is demand, we would certainly consider investing in a much higher-level printer.
What do you hope will come out of a space like this? I think Memphis has the kind of skills and tenacity and creativity that the next big thing could absolutely come out of a space like this. The next big thing could be something that’s prototyped on a 3D printer and thrown on Kickstarter. But the next big thing could also be someone who’s been an electrician for 20 years and comes up with a new disruptive technology that’s even better than LEDs. We’re really just throwing the door wide open.