Science Fair Gives Second Chance

Maker Faire Is an Adult Science and Technology Fair for the Entire Family

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Dan HebertBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

Was your childhood scarred by science fairs? Did you work for weeks on a project that turned out to be incredibly lame compared to other kids’ stuff—stuff that obviously was done by their engineer parents? Here’s your chance to get even.

Maker Faire is three-year-old science fair open to all ages but dominated by adult projects. It is held in May in San Mateo, Calif., and in October in Austin, Texas.

The event has grown from humble beginnings to a major shindig. The most recent event in San Mateo in May featured projects from more than 500 makers, record attendance of 65,000 and a new educational program.
Major companies also are getting into the act as sponsors and exhibitors. At the most recent event, Disney Consumer Products announced its entry into the robotic toy market. Other big name sponsors and exhibitors included Microsoft, Google and IBM.

All prospective makers must submit pre-event proposals to the fair staff. Approved exhibitors are given a 10x10-ft booth space to show their wares. Although there are no prizes or judges, recognition is doled out by fair attendees and by media covering the event. “Makers cannot be commercial firms, but instead must be individuals or groups such as hobby clubs and schools,” says Sherry Huss, Maker Faire director.
But I say there’s no reason why intrepid entrants can’t beg and borrow a few key components from their company’s fab shop.

I’m envisioning a robot or an automated machine modified from its intended industrial purpose to a more whimsical function. Maybe a pick-and-place robot that could pick up and throw a ball. How about a metal-cutting machine that could take a photo of a fair attendee and fashion it into a metallic portrait? The possibilities are endless, and there’s no reason why projects from Machine Builder Nation shouldn’t be among the best.

Commercial firms pay to exhibit at the event, no doubt hoping to promote their products to fair participants. Companies such as Disney sell ready-made toys at the event. Other companies such as sparkfun electronics sell components that makers can use in their own projects.

Again, I’m envisioning a role for us, in this case for the suppliers that serve our industry. Low-cost programmable relays could be used as controllers for automation exhibits. Small touchscreens could provide a way for fair participants to interact with exhibits. Suppliers could use the fair to unload older inventory that is not up to snuff for state-of-the-art industrial machines but plenty good enough for maker projects.

Some of the more interesting projects at the event included two large radio-controlled robots appearing with a mortar-style air cannon to stage a series of small performances.

As described by their makers, a purpose-built prop interacted gingerly with the robots until the last performance when it was devoured. The prop was constructed atop a radio-controlled walking robotic base controlled by members of the audience. The air cannon also was under audience control. Sounds a little dangerous, but also fun and exciting.

How about a 9-ft-tall skull made of toxic waste? The skull rolls around with eyes and teeth made out of flat panel displays. It also has a projector that showed nightly movies such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Living Dead and The Last Man on Earth.

Old steam train engines are great fun to see and hear, as was a steam-electric hybrid motorcycle. It was built on a highly modified chassis of a 1967 Tote Goat and uses a 15 hp 24 Vdc electric motor with a 100 psi steam boiler.

Everyone likes to play with fire, so a blisteringly interactive, large-scale fire toy that translates anyone's movement into fire was a huge hit. A central stage was lined with proximity sensors and surrounded by an outer ring of flame effects, creating huge bursts of flame when a dancer moved onstage. 

All of the projects mentioned above are described in more detail at the event’s website. Evaluate the competition and join in the fun.

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