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September 12, 2018

Q&A with J.R. Logan, executive director of MakeHaven

Photograph | New Haven Biz J.R. Logan.

At 770 Chapel Street, you can find MakeHaven, or what an inventor might call “makeHeaven.” With roughly 4,000 square feet of work space housing an electronics shop, woodshop, crafting and sewing area, 3-D printing area, lasercuters, radio area, plastics and casting area, bike repair shop and kitchen, it’s a tinkerer’s dream. New Haven Biz talked to Executive Director J.R. Logan about how the non-profit, membership-based makerspace makes everything old, new again.

Q. How did you come to be crowned "Chief Maker"? What led you here?

A. Back around 2010 I was coordinating a group that met up and talked about technology and social change. I saw people getting excited about the maker movement and things like 3-D printers. We had people come in and demonstrate this new tech becoming available to hobbyists. Some of our members had been to other cities and been inspired by maker spaces. These conversations let to a dinner where we got about 20 people to pledge $50 per month to see it get started. I was the treasurer on the founding board of MakeHaven and volunteered in other ways. It was all volunteer for a few years.

Q. What was it like to take the project from idea to reality?

A. A couple years in we were growing too slow to really be sure we were viable in the long term. We knew we could not be all-volunteer anymore, we needed to have dedication in building the membership. At that time, I made the decision to do one day a week to see if we could start to turn it around. That was fruitful, we saw membership growing. With that information, the board created a part-time ‘chief maker’ position. It was posted and competitive, I was selected as the winning candidate. Since that time we have had the good fortune to get support and grow membership, which allowed the position to become full-time and now hire supporting staff.

From a personal perspective I had been more interested in computers than actually building things as a child, but my dad was an inventor. He always had a workshop filled with machines and prototypes. So I had some fundamental familiarity with the tools and processes. I still had to do a lot of learning to get up to speed running a maker space, but those deeper memories growing up around a shop gave me a foundation of knowledge. From a business perspective, I went to the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University for my master’s focusing in nonprofit management. That left me well-tooled to handle the business side of running a nonprofit.

Q. What are your daily tasks at MakeHaven?

A. We are a small shop, so it can be anything. Training new members, accounting, grant writing, marketing, taking out the trash, coordinating projects with members or planing events. Really anything, but I am fortunate that I have two great staff, an active board of directors and many talented members who volunteer enthusiastically.

Q. How do you make people comfortable in a space unlike anything they may ever have explored before?

A. Number one, we try to make it clear that no experience is necessary. We tell new people that many before them have learned to sew, 3-D print, solder, woodwork or whatever it is they are interested in doing. We let them know we have volunteers in each interest area who help and give people guidance as they explore. We create educational videos on tool use and try to get people using the equipment through events and activities. It is really important to our mission that people feel empowered by tools and technology, not overwhelmed.

Q. Why do you think these spaces are really taking off now? The massive access to technology? The need to go back to the basics of hand knitting, woodworking etc?

A. I think there are a number of larger forces contributing to the maker movement. Of course, it is more complex than three points, but three drivers I can point to are:

• Desire — People are disenchanted by passive consumerism and constantly replacing cheap plastic consumer products. When you make something yourself you can ensure quality of materials and that it fits your need. Rather than having objects in your life with origins in distant factory, you get to lift the veil and understand how things works. Then you are empowered to improve or fix it. This is a freedom, a type of power. Long ago people did fix their tools and understood how things were made. Modern complexity has distanced people from the origins of things, but with the right guidance you can dissemble, understand, repair and improve or invent products.

• Access to information — What makes this possible is easy access to information. The internet brings us inspiration and technical information that makes it possible to create amazing things. It also allows us to extend our community beyond those immediately around us to those who have specific shared interests. We saw the power of what people can do collectively online with open-source software, but real objects need real machines. To be successful the maker movement needs community places like makerspaces where people can access a range of tools that they would never be able to accumulate themselves. The space and the tools are the platform that people use to engage with the larger worldwide web of information for inventors, artists, craftspeople.

• Drive for community — We see that people are moving back to cities and seeking the arts, culture and vibrancy that density provides. This means people leave behind private suburban and rural tinkering garages and substitute by engaging with community in shared space. The close proximity of people working on widely variant projects means there is opportunity for innovative crossover and collaborations. Where once bowling leagues may have been a hallmark of social engagement, we see people getting together to screen print, brew beer, build robots, design products, sew and generally share passion by working together.

Q. Which are your favorite maker spaces within MakeHaven and why?

A. My favorite area changes as I learn new things. I have always thought CNC milling machines, which are programmable cutting machines, are fascinating and open up amazing options. Interest in CNC milling (removing material) naturally leads to 3-D printing (adding material), and there was a time when I was really fascinated by 3-D printing and learned a lot by experimenting with those machines. Then I found mold making and casting was exciting because shapes made on the 3-D printer could be reproduced with other materials. I think it would be good to get more versed in electronics, that feeds back to being able to better troubleshoot issues with those machines. In short, all the areas have interconnections and I can not pick a favorite, it is the combination of all that make it exciting.

Q. If you could make anything, what would it be?

A. I can make anything [laughs]. For the most part I enjoy figuring out how to make different things as samples, for example on the 3-D printer and laser cutter. Eventually, I want to carve out some time to get better at woodworking and build some furniture. I also think it would be very cool to use the CNC milling machines to carve replicas of historic woodworking reliefs. I envision getting into that if I ever become a homeowner, particularly one with historic character.

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