Cape Cod Makers Return To Passion Projects After Helping With Region’s PPE Surge

By: Brad Joyal

Topics: Harwich , Technology

Cape Cod Makers member Jesse Craig points to a laptop to show how his robotic car’s camera can be displayed on a computer at the makerspace inside the Harwich Cultural Center. BRAD JOYAL PHOTO

HARWICH – Tucked down a back hallway in the Harwich Cultural Center is a space where some of Cape Cod’s best and brightest congregate to share ideas. It’s a room where concepts become a reality, where likeminded individuals join forces to see their dreams take flight.

The room, which was formerly used to teach home economics classes at the old Harwich Middle School before it was transformed into the cultural center, is actually a “makerspace” and home to the Cape Cod Makers, a non-profit organization committed to promoting and cultivating a culture that embraces do-it-yourself projects.

“We’re essentially a club,” explains Jesse Craig, a software engineer and Eastham resident who serves as an officer for the Cape Cod Makers. “Everybody who joins becomes a member.”

Although the makers are beginning to meet in person more frequently this spring as the state’s vaccine rollout reaches more people, the organization has stayed plenty busy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, the makers played a key role in producing and distributing the region’s supply of personal protective equipment. In all, the makers supplied 8,000 plastic face shields that could be used in addition to wearing medical face masks. It wasn’t without the help of the Cape community, however, as about roughly 60 volunteers — some of whom had their own 3D printers at home — helped with the project.

When the final tally was counted at the beginning of May 2020, the makers had delivered 5,000 face shields to Cape Cod Healthcare, 2,000 more to local nursing homes and about another 1,000 that were distributed to dentists and other folks who made individual requests.

“We got requests from people who were family members of nurses working in other parts of the country because they didn’t have PPE, so we’d mail them out 10 or so,” Craig said. “All sorts of weird stuff was going on.”

As much as Craig and the other makers were happy to help, the whole experience was also eye-opening.

“I never thought I’d ever be in that position,” Craig said. “I’m somewhat discouraged that we ended up in that situation given our manufacturing capabilities as a country, and I’m really amazed at how people come together when there is a need. People stepped up — they never asked for money, they just used their own stuff.”

After helping to make and distribute PPE, the makers returned to their passion projects.

“It’s nice to see people kind of working on pet projects again,” said Russ Laffin, a Harwich resident who joined the makers shortly before COVID-19 swept the nation in early 2020.

While Craig gravitates toward software and electronics, Laffin tends to focus more on woodworking. Other members, such as Sandwich resident Matt Desmarais, are absorbed in computer projects while Doug and Nancy Butler, a couple from Centerville, spend their time working on robotics.

Doug Butler mentioned he’s hopeful one day there will be a combat robotics league on the Cape so he can see his robot battle with competitors.

The makers are an eclectic mix of people with differing ideas and interests. They work together because they are committed to using their own skill sets to help others. For some, such as Laffin, the camaraderie has been a helpful outlet, particularly during the pandemic.

“It’s been hugely beneficial and very enjoyable,” Laffin said. “After making connections with other members, I really look forward to being on the other side of the pandemic and being able to collaborate with them on projects.”

“It’s been nice just to talk to people,” added Desmarais. “You can come to the space and it’s pretty comfortable and we have all this equipment and there’s nice people you can bounce ideas off of.”

The makerspace is outfitted with lots of tables that give the makers an opportunity to maintain social distancing protocols while working. It also has a 3D printer and tools to weld and cut wood. The new toy that has all the makers excited? That’s easy — the organization’s new Glowforge 3D laser cutter.

“It’s a laser cutter that lets you take sheets of materials and cut them or engrave them with very high precision,” Craig said. “It can cut through, say, five millimeters of clear acrylic or you could engrave a photograph onto wood. We’ve played around with tiles and even engraved rocks.”

As activity continues to pick up at the makerspace as more and more people are vaccinated, Craig said he’s hopeful the organization will be able to add even more members to its group. While he said the motivation for some to join might be to have a workspace complete with equipment, he noted every project ultimately stems from a sense of curiosity or a need for fulfillment.

The makers have two tiers of participants — supporting and full-time members. Supporting members pay $10 each month and have access to the makerspace when it’s open from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and 6 to 9 p.m. Saturdays. Full-time members pay $50 a month and receive a key to the cultural center, allowing them to spend time at the makerspace at their convenience.

Craig said there are eight full-time members and roughly 25 supporting members who live throughout Cape Cod; a few who live off Cape.

“There’s no density of makers on Cape Cod. There isn’t really one community that seems to attract them more so than any other,” explains Craig.

“The makerspace is partially a tool share and a shared space,” he said. “Some of the equipment can be really expensive, so we buy it under the umbrella of the club and then everybody gets to use it. I would say the biggest motivator (to make objects) is curiosity. A lot of the stuff is developed or built for enjoyment, but sometimes it’s just a practical problem around the house that someone wants to improve or fix.”

Visit capecodmakers.org for more information about the Cape Cod Makers.

Email Brad Joyal at brad@capecodchronicle.com