The Kansas City Maker Faire — a collection of inventors, innovations and ideas — returns for the fifth year this weekend to Union Station. It’s the Midwest STEM-centric Coachella, a sort of science fair on steroids with exhibits featuring sophisticated robots and 3-D printers, all locally made by tinkerers driven more often by a sense of “what if” and a little “why not.”
The 10,000 expected attendees will be treated to a range of interactive exhibits including the low-cost plastic molding device that 13-year-old Ted Brull invented. Then, visitors can stop by Ron Green’s area to make their own stop-motion film, before wandering off to look at other scientific marvels. And like every good Kansas City event, barbecue will be available.
Animating the crowds
Green’s space at the Union Station festival will feature filmmaking instruction and give attendees the tools needed to create stop-motion films and short movies right at the site.
Green, of Olathe, is the founder of KC digiSTORY, which has been doing a more detailed version of that sort of teaching with grade-school students. Throughout the summer, he’ll be working with a team of filmmakers at Operation Breakthrough to craft a student-led documentary on the organization.
“We’ve got to figure out what the point is. What’s the theme?” Green asked a group of kids inside an Operation Breakthrough classroom with walls that had been papered over with storyboards and narrative designs.
“(Filmmaking) is kind of difficult,” sixth-grader Myla Smith said.
Myla worked with Green last summer on a stop-motion animation film. Everything from the placing of cuts to the set design needs to be planned meticulously.
“You’ve really got to have it all ready to go.”
Eventually, KC digiSTORY will be a comprehensive institution to help home-grown digital animation professionals, Green said. Starting in January 2018, the Laugh-O-Gram Studio at 31st Street and Forest Avenue will house the group’s operations.
Green said what got him started thinking about the potentials of digital storytelling was a filmmaking project with his former employer, Hallmark.
“We really didn’t have the internal expertise for that … so we outsourced a bunch,” Green said.
The unfulfilled need that major organizations and businesses have for video capability coupled with what he discovered was an ample film talent pool clustered around Kansas City is going to create a tipping point for the digital storytelling industry, Green said.
“The power of storytelling; it’s so underutilized,” Green said adding that advertisement campaigns mediated through videos have been shown to generate transactions with customers. Videos can also enhance a nonprofit’s fundraising capacity.
“People have identified this as a major opportunity for advocacy and change,” Green said.
A universal remote
The Union Station event will also feature Hal Gottfried, an Olathe computer engineer and chief of the Kansas City Open Hardware Group.
The Olathe computer engineer is showcasing an idea very much in concert with the event’s spirit: democratized hardware designs that are available for modification by the end user.
He’s looking at a universal remote, but one with built with what’s known as “open hardware” where user modification is not only possible but encouraged through freely available product designs showing how the electronic works and what component does what.
“It’s about helping people understand what’s inside the ‘magic black box,’” is the catch-all term Gottfried is using.
For Gottfried, it about having a holistic relationship with the item.
“If you can’t open it, is it truly yours?” he asked.
Gottfried started the Kansas City group in 2012. Open hardware can be used to create a broad range of products. For example, designs are freely available on the Internet for people to build drones, cameras and homes using open hardware.
Gottfried predicts that open hardware will continue to grow in popularity because of the relatively low cost of creating products based on designs with an open license. And there’s a creative ecosystem to share the work of improving a product.
“With open source design, you basically hire a community to help you do that creative work,” Gottfried said.
The open hardware trend and the whole maker movement itself only appears to be a niche community as first glance. But Gottfried said future generations are going to be much more tech literate.
“And you may need to understand how the things you use work, whether or not you’re interested in engineering,” he said.
Ted Brull of Parkville will take his place among the tinkerers at this weekend’s event. The Union Station event is a launch for the company the teen inventor is founding to spotlight his plastic molding tool.
It’s a plastic forming device that uses heat from an oven and vacuum suction to mold sheets of loose, heated plastic around objects. The nearly viscous plastic settles on object like a blanket and then hardens, retaining the shape, like the plastic shell of a blister pack.
Ted said he originally got the idea when he was building a computer and couldn’t find the right size case for it.
So, using a prototype of his plastic molding tool, he made one.
Ted said it wasn’t hard to see how the tool — which he’s refined for consumers and named “Kevo” after the Greek word for “vacuum” — could be used in other areas. He explained that similar manufacturing processes create plastic shells for a range of electronics, like a computer mouse. But Ted said he could see chefs using the Kevo to craft custom molds for chocolate or unique ice cubes.
“I realized that since there are so many markets, and we have the tools here in our shop to make a large quantity of them, that would be something people would want to buy,” Ted said.
Ted added manufacturing is changing in a big way because of the “maker movement,” shorthand for the rise of home inventors, and tools like the ones he’s making. The movement has prompted Ted to introduce the Kevo through the company he’s launching, Creation Hardware, and an accompanying kickstarter campaign to get him ready to manufacture the product.
In addition to the Kevo, Ted also hopes to use the company to build a version of the plastic molder with a built-in heating element and a low-cost laser cutter.
This weekend won’t be Ted’s first appearance at the Kansas City Maker Faire nor his first time launching a company through a project showcased there.
In 2012, Ted made his first appearance at the Union Station event with clocks made from repurposed computer parts. Dubbed “TedClocks,” Ted sold enough of them to turn them into a viable commercial project and, consequently, his first business, which he founded at age 10.
IF YOU GO
What: Kansas City Maker Faire
Description: A gathering of hundreds of “makers” — home inventors and artisan do-it-yourselfers — with interactive exhibits.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road
Cost: Tickets start at $11 for those younger than age 12 and older than 55. For everyone else, tickets start at $14.
For more info, go to MakerFaireKC.com.