"I’ve only just realised that I’m not actually an engineer: I’m a maker.” So says Dr Lucy Rogers, fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the British Interplanetary Society. She’s also got a City and Guilds in wood turning, a PhD in blowing bubbles, and is an alumnus of a NASA problem-solving academy that’s finding ways to save us from fiery doom brought about by space junk.
In an age when specialisms are rewarded and people increasingly know more and more about less and less, Dr Rogers knows lots of things about lots of things. That makes her a good person to learn from and an even better person to sit down to have a cup of tea with, which we did on a cold frosty morning in February.
HS Morning Lucy! There’s so much we can ask you about: the Guild of Makers, the Internet of Things, space, robots, dinosaurs… How did you get into making in the first place?
LUCY ROGERS It’s really cool, isn’t it? I’ve got every six-year-old’s dream job. My first year at university they sold all the lathes because they were going more academic rather than practical. So I didn’t learn that much hands-on stuff at university. I had a car that I did up and got through its MOT; I think I learned more with my little Renault 5 than I did with the academic stuff. But every project I did at university, where I got the choice, I did the ones that made things. When I got my first job I was sponsored by Rolls-Royce. I loved the manufacturing part much more than the maths. The hardest maths that I use is trigonometry. I don’t use much more than that. V=IR, a bit of algebra.
My PhD was using Bernoulli’s equation, but it’s not the maths that excites me. For my PhD I was looking at how bubbles are made in firefighting equipment. So I had all the maths of how much air’s going to get retained, how much surfactant do you use, how much soap solution do you use, how much water do you use. The bit that excited me was making a nozzle out of Perspex and getting a high-speed video camera and watching bubbles being made. That was my PhD – making bubbles. And every project since, if I’ve been able to make something, I have. My academic background is all engineering, but I’m a maker and that’s what I want to do, that’s what I love.
HS Do you think your engineering degree helped you to become a maker? I know quite a few people who don’t have degrees who don’t realise that what they missed out on by not going to university wasn’t that much at all. A PhD might be a little bit different, mind.
LR A PhD is mostly about tenacity. Knowing what I know now, I would probably have done an apprenticeship. If I was recommending to a 16- or 18-year-old nowadays who wanted to go into engineering, I’d say do an apprenticeship (which may also lead to a degree), but that’s just another way of doing it.
I wanted the hands-on factor, and back then you were academic or you were practical: you couldn’t do both. Whereas my grandfather probably left school at 14, didn’t have an education, but could make clocks or model cars or steam boats or spinning wheels and could work it all out. He went to the Greenwich Museum where John Harrison’s chronometer was, and would go there with a ruler when my mum was small. My mum was left to play on the docks and my granddad would go in with his ruler, take a measurement, go home, get a bit of brass and make that piece. He’d come back the next week, measure another thing, come home… he made the first quarter-scale model of Harrison’s chronometer number 1, and it’s now in the Science Museum.
He was making without the education. [But] I wouldn’t be where I am without having ‘Doctor’ in front of my name. Because it gives that credibility.
No-one cares what the doctorate’s in: I’ve got a PhD in bubbles. I got chartered with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers when I was 25, and became a fellow at 35‑ish, because I knew that I needed that piece of paper in order to be taken credibly in the industry, as a freelance and as a woman as well. That was a big push in why I did that, and it’s worked. So I have the credibility in having a degree, but what I learnt during the degree is not so relevant.
You learn more from your mistakes. At university I really didn’t get on with either the computing or the electronics, and for my final degree I just selected the mechanical and industrial manufacturing segments instead. My electronics was V=IR and that was about all I could do. I knew where to put a resistor.
So in 2011 I started to get into Arduino and I remember getting a music shield on the Arduino, and the ground on [it] wasn’t zero volts. And I blew up two of these music shields at £30 a go, which at the time I didn’t have, I couldn’t afford it.
I had no idea what I’d done. I didn’t know that ground wasn’t always 0 volts, that ground is relative. Where do you learn that sort of stuff?
HS You learn it by blowing stuff up.
LR And by someone saying when they make the same mistake. Fortunately we’ve now got Twitter, and people can share their mishaps. “I’ve done this – where have I gone wrong?” There’s almost always someone out there who’ll respond with “ha ha, I did that – this is what you’ve done”.
HS This seems like the perfect time to talk about the Guild of Makers, which has already been helping people out on the internet before it’s even launched. Tell us about it: what are you planning, and why does the world need it?
LR I’ve been round Maker Faires and you can’t get to have a go at things because there are too many kids in the way. It’s not politically correct to kick a child out of the way. I wanted to have a conference for makers who are making professionally. So not: “You’ve never touched a soldering iron before; this is how we solder”, but “this is how you set up a business”, or “this is how you go into mass production” and all those sorts of things.
If you wanted to set up a company to make stuff 20 years ago you’d probably need an advertising person and a marketing person and a logistics person before you even started. Now you can order stuff online, you can sell your stuff on Amazon — most of the difficulty has gone. You can remove a lot of the dull, dangerous, and dirty bits of your production. You can either outsource it to a factory that has that kind of equipment, or you just don’t have to do it any more.
So nowadays you don’t have to do every part of the process. But you can still be in control of every part of the process. I think cottage industries are coming back with more people not having a job for life, and more wanting to be creative and actually realising that they have a route to do that.
So the Guild of Makers is for professional makers and those who want to be professional makers. That’s how Makers’ Hour started [follow the hashtag #MakersHour on Twitter every Wednesday 8–9pm UK time]. Before I go and set up the Guild of Makers as a limited company, let’s try Makers’ Hour, because setting up @GuildofMakers was free. And it’s taken off. We’ve got a queue of people wanting to host it, we’ve got probably 30 or 40 regulars joining in, there are probably 200 people who’ve joined in at various times.
HS You’re planning the launch at the beginning of March, so anyone reading this before then should check back on the website after 1 March. How are things going behind the scenes?
LR You’ll be able to join as a member, which will be relatively inexpensive. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’re doing, anyone can join. You will get access to a load of other makers, you’ll get discounts at our conferences, workshops, you’ll get discounts from (these need to be confirmed) RS Components, Adafruit, Autodesk training…
For the purposes of the Guild, a maker is a practical person who takes pride in creating physical items using their imagination and skills. I know a photographer could be a maker – artists are makers – but the main focus of this guild is for those who make practical items, physical items. Computer programmers, computer gamers, won’t fall into that definition. If they want to join, they’re welcome to join, its just that I’m not focusing on their specific need. Its all practical stuff.
So that’s normal membership; you can also become accredited, where you’ll be peer-reviewed, so not only do you make a lovely widget – that is, if you’re a wood turner, not only are you an excellent wood turner – but you can also make it to time, to budget, make it so that you can make a living out of it, so you’re not just making pompoms and selling them on Etsy for the cost of the wool.
The accreditation will be like a kite mark, a way of saying “yes, we have seen that this person can make a good product”. If it’s an electronics thing it’s not just a breadboard; they can make it on a serviceable PCB, install it in your factory and it actually works, and it will work three months, six months later.
Then if a big company approached and said, “We need someone who can do this,” instead of us saying, “Get Jane Smith, she’s really good at that,” the Guild of Makers can act as a brokerage. Jane Smith can invoice Guild of Makers and the Guild of Makers invoices the large company, so you take out the thing that happens when small people deal with big companies where it takes six months to get set up on their accounts system. That’s going to be in the future. It’s not what I’m launching with.
By 1 March I’ll have memberships open and there’ll be a founder member perk if you join before 1 April. So that’s for the individual maker. Companies can get involved too. If you’re a company member you don’t get the discounts that individual members get, but you do get access to the makers, the directory of makers, first dibs on sponsoring things at the events.
HS Do you think open source has helped in creating the conditions where you can do this? You spoke earlier about the spread of cottage industries. Is open source and sharing a big part of that?
LR Yes, most definitely. From sharing, from people running workshops — even paid-for workshops — I could run a workshop on how to start with Raspberry Pi; someone else could run one on making chairs. We’ve got not just Makers’ Hour, we’ve got #makershelp, and if you’ve got a problem we’ve got quite a few people watching that hashtag who’ll direct you to someone who can help.
A lot of the stuff that I make personally, I have used other people’s open-source software. And I refer back to it when I write blogs and how-tos. And I don’t like saying, “Yay it’s mine now!” Because it’s not. I don’t want to patent something or make a profit on someone else’s work.
But I can write the blog, the step-by-step guide. And now some of those people who had been helping me can now refer to my blog. “I helped Lucy do that thing. How did it work again? Oh, she’s written it up! That’s how we did it.”
Scratching each other’s backs works really well. A lot of this stuff isn’t commercially sensitive. Information about the difference between a sole trader and a partnership is stuff that you might as well share. I’m also hoping to partner with a legal company, so if you ever do need that kind of help, you’ll have access to it.
In this village there are probably about 50 makers, but I don’t know them. I’ve gone round people’s houses and seen what they do as part of the Open Studios days. Some of it is for fun. A lot of it is for a hobby and they sell things for the price of the raw materials. Which is great, but it’s not a profession.
This started with me wanting to know more makers. I want to know more people who make professionally. I’ve now got people around the world wanting to join, and so it’s not only going to be in the UK – it’s going to be franchised or licensed somehow internationally. I’ve got people in New Zealand, in Sweden, The Netherlands, Greece, all wanting to do the Guild of Makers in their own country.
It seems to be something that people have been waiting to crystallise around. And this is it. Whether I want to or not, this is going to happen.
HS Do you think that you’re trying to fill a niche that the hackspace movement is already filling?
LR I think the hackspace movement is growing up. The maker movement is growing up, and those who are doing it as a hobby want to do it as an industry. So the makerspaces, the hackspaces are wonderful, but only if you’ve got one locally and you’ve got the right people in it, because they’re all run by volunteers.
There aren’t many makerspaces that have been successfully run as a business. I’m a member of the Society of Authors, and when I see that the Society of Authors is offering me workshops on how to give a talk, on how to do your tax return, on how to protect your intellectual property… I wanted that for makers, and it wasn’t there… so, that’s ultimately what the Guild of Makers is for.