Variety was the word of the weekend at Milwaukee’s first Maker Faire, a gathering for craftspeople of all types and legions of the interested public.
Hundreds of do-it-yourself enthusiasts—from soapmakers to robotics design teams, from clothiers to 3D printers—showed their wares to guests and fellow makers at State Fair Park over two days.
Many of the skilled crafts on display took days and even months to complete—so the GE Design Challenge’s three-hour start-to-finish timeline was not for the faint (or slow) of heart.
Six teams signed up to complete an obstacle course with a machine of their creation. Their objective was revealed only minutes before the clock started: create a unique rescue transport device. The devices were tested by carrying a pan full of water through an obstacle course to see how much was left at the end. They were also judged on speed, crowd reaction, and technical merit.
The winner was an amalgamation of wheelchair wheels, PVC pipe, and a secret weapon: sponges to hold the water in the pan. Team Squaaaaaaw took home the trophy: a light-up, hodge-podge tribute to the maker culture.
Notable entries included Team Harley’s (as in Davidson Motorcycles) wheeled sled, which dumped most of the water in the first few feet, but looked impressive, with a suspended end table carrying the water pan.
Team Brady’s entry was the only device to lose no water, thanks to an innovative zip-line system that transported the pan over the obstacles between two wheeled posts that easily zipped around the course’s corners.
The best show was Team Apollo 13.5, who, after starting several designs that they learned violated the rules, settled on a human backpack—one team member carried the water pan in his lap while strapped to his teammate as they maneuvered over and around obstacles.
The design challenge took up the middle of the Expo Center on Saturday and drew a crowd, but the fair was packed with must-see displays inside and out (see slideshow).
Nights shining armor: Jake Bissen sank more than 400 hours into building a full steel suit of armor, at first working out of his garage with limited tools. He’s since moved into the Milwaukee Makerspace, which has cut his work time in half. Unlike some of the exhibitors, he isn’t a pro—and isn’t pursuing that status, either.
“I just do it for sort of a hobby now,” Bissen said. “If I do get good really fast, then sure, why not, I’ll do it on the side. But not as a job, no.”
The droid he’s been looking for: A “life-size” R2-D2 stood guard over a collection of Tesla coils, demonstrated by engineer Bob Trocke. He brought the robot and the lightning-generating coils to engage kids in science.
“That’s what got me interested in engineering,” Trocke said. “Watching ‘Star Wars’ when I was a little kid.”
So far, his approach is working: his daughter, Kyra, is a budding engineer who said she liked R2 best of all the gadgets.
The art of zentanglement: Dawn Jackson is an upcycler—she reuses items in her art that others would throw away. At the fair, she displayed crocheted trivets woven around six-pack rings and reusable tea boxes made by reinforcing a disposable tea box with tea bag wrappers. Her other passion is the “addictive” art of zentangle, a meditative art form that can be used to develop and refine motor skills and relieve stress. Jackson sold colorful fans inspired by zentangle-style art, which she was afraid wouldn’t fit in with what she assumed was going to be a mostly robotics-focused showcase. She was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few other art-and-craft-type makers pursuing the same goals.
“I just moved into a studio,” Jackson said, “so I’m looking to expand my horizon beyond my normal realm.”
Sparkling jewels: Dead center on the maker spectrum of scientists and artists is Lumen Electronic Jewelry, a sibling team of designer-engineers that makes baubles out of circuit boards. The solar- and USB-powered charms—in the shape of skulls, butterflies, hearts, owls, and other popular designs—are sold assembled or as DIY kits. Robin Lawson, Lumen’s “design diva,” says the jewelry does especially well at maker gatherings.
“Makers are kind of one of our audiences,” Lawson said. “They like unusual things, tinker things, they like things that look like circuit boards but are also beautiful.”
Other notable booths included:
- FIDO (Fetch Interesting Deliverable Objects) the robotic dog, who can scoop up a tennis ball and toss it in the air for a human to throw using face-recognition technology.
- The ChiBots, a group of robotics enthusiasts who showed off their line-following bots built by hand.
- And of course the Milwaukee Makerspace booth, which displayed a miniature tank with a working pellet cannon.
Brant Holeman, the Makerspace’s outgoing president, described a Maker Faire as “an arts and crafts bazaar mixed with a science fair mixed with a lecture series.”
What brings them all together is the maker spirit. “Really the common thread between a lot of these is that people are making things on their own, not necessarily going out and buying stuff,” Holeman said. “There’s craftsmen, craftswomen, artisans that like to do things regardless of if you can go buy it from Ikea or Walmart.”
Molly Willms is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI.