WATERLOO | Five entrepreneurs have put together a nonprofit organization to create what could be a crucible for new product development in the Cedar Valley.
Cedar Valley Makers Inc. proposes to pull together a metal shop, wood shop, electronics lab and 3-D printers in about 5,000 square feet of space on the third floor of the Cedar Valley TechWorks building.
The group proposes to raise $50,000 in cash contributions and in-kind equipment donations to equip the space and have it up and running by year's end. They've already secured a $20,000 matching grant from the McElroy Trust and an account through the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa.
The equipment would be open to use by artisans, crafters, inventors and manufacturers who would pay a monthly fee.
The "maker space" -- a concept happening in other locations around the country -- would be open to people of all ages and skill levels, and it's hoped the cooperative atmosphere would generate a synergy of creative minds that could lead, potentially, to new products, new companies and new jobs for the area.
"It's going to be a full wood shop, full metal shop, 3-D printer lab, electronics lab, arts and crafts. We were putting together our plan and TechWorks offered up the space, thought we would be a good fit for their building," said Taylor Morris, Cedar Valley Makers board vice president, U.S. Navy-decorated Afghanistan war veteran and senior business management major at the University of Northern Iowa.
One of the other board members is Danny Laudick, talent development coordinator at the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber. Other members are educators or employees at other local technology-oriented businesses.
"You pay a monthly membership, and then you have access to all this equipment," Morris said. "There's people all over the place that have great ideas all the time. It's just no means of production, no means of prototyping. Now you can come in, you can get on the computer and draw up the 3-D model and within a few hours you can have a working prototype of your idea. If it does work, you can potentially use some of the other tools to create a viable product.
"There's definitely potential for economic development, in that (business) startups will have more of a chance to get going," Morris said. "The other thing about it will be the collaborative aspect," from other members with varied skills using the maker space.
"You'll have master machinists talking to master craftsmen, maybe talking to a younger kid who can run the 3-D printer. That's just three types of people, three different disciplines, that probably never would have collaborated before," Morris said. "But now everybody's going to be in the break room, having coffee together. And you never know what might come out of there."
Membership is open to students, do-it-yourselfers and retirees -- anyone from middle-schoolers up to retired John Deere workers.
There's an educational aspect to the initiative as well.
"One of the major parts of this is we want to fire up some kids to get interested in STEM-related activities," said Morris, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "We want to do after-school programs, work with Boys and Girls Clubs, the Scouts, anybody that volunteers that would be willing to pass on their trades. I'm sure there's a bunch of retirees out there that mastered a trade for 40 years and want to pass on their expertise or just be back in an environment where they have tools running and the capabilities to do things and make things."
They would also like to work with local school robotics teams and Lego leagues.
"We want to be known as a place that is super creative and can drive innovation and solve problems," Morris said. "I'd love it if people just come there to throw their problems and issues out there and see if we can collaborate on them."
Other board members are president John Burnett, Mike Hoffman and Neal Muzzy. "Everyone has their own area of expertise," Morris said.
"Along with access to tools, it is invigorating to be in a group of like-minded people with a diverse set of skills," Burnett said. "A gathering place like this can help match people into a team that is more capable than each individual on their own. And the accountability of working around other people can motivate someone with an idea to push through getting it done, beyond just getting help with the technical hurdles that always pop up."
The group has been meeting regularly in locales such as the Cedar Falls Public Library. "It's been everything from rope making, to arcade-style video games to junk bots," Morris said, but the group wants to branch out into a larger space with more equipment and greater production capabilities.
They've also tried innovations like 3-D printed prosthetics. "A few of those guys had those technical skills and I was a great candidate to try it out," said Morris, a quadruple amputee from his Afghanistan service.
Cedar Valley Makers aspires "to promote collaborative learning, creative design and and manufacturing for people of all ages and skill levels," according to the group's mission statement.
"We also really want to partner with manufacturers and companies in the area that can offer tool sets," Morris said, perhaps offering technician-assisted access to equipment that may not be available or practical in the maker space.
Cedar Valley Makers is in the middle of a founding sponsor campaign "to get enough money to purchase our initial set of tools," Morris said, and eventually, digital fabrication equipment. The group already has about 20 active members and would start a membership drive once the maker-space equipment has been secured, following a soft opening for the space.
"We're not just looking for money," Morris emphasized. "We would take tools, donations, volunteers. People that want to help out. People that like the idea and want to support it." They're also looking for businesses to help pay for employees' memberships in the maker space.
"We just want to emphasize that we want it to be a community effort. It'll be a really fun, really creative space. But in the end it's going to be something that benefits everybody," Morris said.
Interested individuals may contact Cedar Valley Makers at 883-9371, email@example.com or the Cedar Valley Makers Facebook page.