Makers of Kalamazoo

Intrepid Tinkerers of the Rust Belt
Kalamazoo Makers front sign with caption “a project of the kalamazoo innovation initiative” and “the best woodshop you ever sawed, schedule a tour kzoomakers.org”

There’s a warehouse in East Kalamazoo. It’s called the Kzoo Maker’s Space, and it presents a bold vision of the future of production in the state. 

It’s a nondescript warehouse on the outside. It looks like any other building in the current and former industrial parks littering the Kalamazoo landscape. Inside it houses a collaborative, cooperative “maker’s space.” It isn’t a business, though many of them sell their wares. It’s a complex set of tools, available by membership in their community.

Equipped with “a complete woodshop, industrial laser cutter, 3D printers, welding area, computer lab and craft room, and more,” this shared industrial space is a new model. It eschews the Fordian logic of the assembly line for a free-spirited embrace of every advanced manufacturing technique the 21st century has to offer. Ruthless efficiency is replaced with freedom. Freedom to employ this full suite of tools, and whatever other madness they come up with, to pursue their singular visions independently. 

There’s a warehouse in East Kalamazoo. It’s called the Kzoo Maker’s Space, and it presents a bold vision of the future of production in the state.

The brilliance of the shop lies in its structure as a shared space, with accessible membership plans and a built-in community. Each of these makers would be hard pressed to afford all of this equipment on their own. Most of them work another job. But together, they’re able to fund this space providing advanced manufacturing equipment for all of them. They’re encouraged to pursue their interests freely, making things they simply desire to make, experimenting and tinkering as much as they’d like.

Workshop with drill press and assorted equipment, woodcut outline of the USA, and USA flag on the wall.
Photo by Bobby Mars

An ornate 3D-printed clock. Piles of raw wood, oak, cherry, maple, with saws and mills and belt sanders. Tables and chairs, all made on-site. That’s what first brought me there. A buddy was a member, and he built an oak coffee table for me on commission. When I needed other fabrication, some small wood frames or an elaborate sort of sculptural projector, I knew who to hit up. And this is where he put my crazy schemes into production.

Engine blocks, CNC mills, laser cutters, inkjet printers, and everything one might imagine comes out of them litter the space. Production mirrors this deliberate chaos, with projects equally esoteric and beyond the scope of typical manufacturing. One young man, for example, claimed to be making the world’s largest pinball machine, and by the size of the damn thing, he’d succeeded—using a cue ball in the place of a standard pinball, to give you a sense of scale. 

Red CNC router with bare wood block.
Photo by Bobby Mars

Many of them had access to labs like this in college. They spoke wistfully about it, how they loved those labs and were crushed to lose access. For all that tuition money, when you graduate, you’re kicked out of all of it. Then you leave, go out into the real world, and realize there are spaces like this, with like-minded people working together, that don’t require 50 grand a year of tuition to pay for. 

Michiganders should be unleashed on spaces like this. So much of our current education and production system is concerned with confinement, with structure and conformity, legacies of the industrial era when deviating from the assembly line would mess everything up. That simply isn’t the case anymore, not in Michigan at least, not in the way these renegades make things now. They need to be equipped to make things and given the freedom to innovate.

Workshop space with people gathered around tables talking and working on laptops and laser cutting equipment.
Photo by Bobby Mars

In fact, there are several of these shops now throughout the state, in Ann Arbor, Lansing, Detroit, and Kalamazoo. All belonging to a loose national network of similar spaces, each independently run but part of a larger association. The Kalamazoo space in particular is only eight years old or so, still in its relative infancy. 

One only wonders what could come if this growth was actively fostered with community and public support. The efficiency alone, compared to the higher ed system, is remarkable. The bloated and obtuse academic institutions, compared with these lean industrial spaces, become simple dead weight. Imagine what good a mere fraction of their resources could do if used directly in spaces like this. 

The humble maker space is testament to the sheer willful desire of Michiganders to make things. To follow their interests and produce what their heart desires. To generate new technics and thereby new culture. This spirit is alive and well, just hidden below the surface. We ought to stimulate it with as much energy as we can muster.

Bobby Mars is an artist, alter ego, and former art professor. Follow him on X at @bobby_on_mars.

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