BY JOSH VAN OSTRAND
The Region of Waterloo is a vast tech hub known for many advances in technology, but the region is also well known for its art. What most people don’t know the area for is a growing subculture that is becoming a very active part of the community.
In an unassuming building on the corner of Kent Avenue and Charles Street East resides a technological and artistic powerhouse that is maker culture. Every nook and cranny inside is filled with trinkets and gadgets to bring wonder to even the most creative of science fiction fans. The Kwartzlab is a maker space, a workshop where members get together and share tools and experience as a way of helping each other to reach their creative potential and to solve problems. While that may evoke images of a boring, sterile environment or a dingy basement, the group of people who make up the Kwartzlab exude nothing but fun and creativity.
Maker culture is a combination of art and engineering spanning all kinds of creation from mechanics and robotics to computer code and design. On Tuesday evenings members of the Kwartzlab gather to open the space up and show off maker culture, and to work and talk with people who are interested in the space or the culture that it represents. To a lot of people in the lab, maker culture is very dear to them.
“It’s a collaboration of individuals coming together to better humanity,” said David Metcalf, a creative and daring member of the Kwartzlab and Conestoga alumnus. “When it comes to (the Kwartzlab) it’s all about a bunch of people helping each other. We all have our separate projects and we all come together to help with those as well as collaborate with each other to do something cool for society.”
The culture has a fairly short history according to Ben Brown, a founding member and former director of the Kwartzlab.
“Kwartzlab is six years old and it was pretty much my first big project,” said Brown. “Maker culture got popular with Make magazine about 10 years ago but before that there was DIY and hacking, the non-’90s Internet movie version of hacking, that is. Working on projects just solving your own problems kind of thing.”
The solo aspect of it changed when the culture became more accessible to people and maker spaces began to form out of camaraderie. That camaraderie and constant drive to help others create is an integral part of maker culture and it’s evident in the way that members greet each other and how they react toward newcomers in the space. It’s not uncommon to see a joke from one side of the room make everyone laugh.
People come to the space to use the collective set of tools that are shared by all the members. Everything from ovens hot enough to melt aluminum to a laser cutting machine and a small array of 3D printers provide everything needed to create something unique.
However, according to Brown, the space itself is only a small part of what Kwartzlab is. “Kwartzlab is a community,” said Brown. “The space is where we get together and it’s where all of our tools and materials are but Kwartzlab is really just a community. There are people from all kinds of different backgrounds coming together and making things.” An important part of that diversity is a very welcoming atmosphere.
“I’ve only been in Waterloo for about three weeks,” said Nikolas Trutiak, field solutions engineer at Aeryon Labs. “I wasn’t sure I was going to like Waterloo
but it’s this kind of thing that excites me. There are a bunch of people who are all doing research and building their own things, sort of poking at new technologies and trying to figure out how it all works. They’re making fun stuff and learning. I feel like this is a really good way to build your skills and have fun doing it.”
The things that Kwartzlab members create are something that members are often very proud of. All of them spend open nights working on their projects and talking about them with other members and with the Kwartzlab’s visitors.
Metcalf has a working prototype of a spinal neuro bridge for helping people dealing with paralysis and has been working on a new device which uses a combination of moving tracks to, hopefully someday, allow wheelchairs to climb stairs. During the evening, he experienced problems getting an old Xbox power supply to make the motor in his machine run and it took several members’ advice and extra hands to get the power supply running the motor.
Brown spent most of the evening creating small buttons emblazoned with the Kwartzlab logo and greeting people who spent the evening touring the lab.
Ben Eaton, a first-year computer engineering technology student at Conestoga, spent much of the evening cutting wood with the Kwartzlab’s laser cutter to form a wooden steam locomotive.
“You have to love learning, I think, to really gel with it because that’s the kind of thing that unifies us – learning new things and making cool new stuff.”
Loving learning is something that each member of the Kwartzlab talked about, how important education is and how much of an impact maker culture has had on their learning. Even Trutiak, who has only been part of the lab for an evening, brought it up.
“A friend was talking about training his kids in kung fu one time,” said Trutiak. “I asked him, ‘How come you’re not doing harder lessons?’ He said if you make the lessons a game, they’ll train themselves and that’s kind of what you have here. It’s amazing.”
It’s easy to assume that maker culture in the region ends at the door to the Kwartzlab but many parts of the culture make it outside of the lab. The biggest one is Maker Expo, being held this year on Sept. 10.
Maker Expo was started as another of Brown’s projects and according to him, last year’s expo featured over 100 exhibitors from gardening to robots and everything in between. The expo was attended by about 7,500 people and local startup companies showed off new products to the public. One of the biggest draws was Bot Brawl where the mayors of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge battled each other with robots. Barry Vrbanovik, Kitchener’s mayor, won the competition.
New memberships to the Kwartzlab cost $100 for initial registration and $56.50 each month to cover Kwartzlab’s expenses but the public is welcome to visit the space during Tuesday open nights at 7 p.m.