Soldering On For Makers' Sake

As more Singaporeans embrace the “maker” culture, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) has come up with two Labs to further foster the culture of building and creating. 
Soldering On For Makers' Sake

Ms Shermaine Chee (pictured above) is a programmer by training and a maker by interest. She’s got what many makers, or those who like to make things, would consider a dream job: promoting tinkering in Singapore, with a tech twist.

For Ms Chee is a Senior Manager at the IDA Labs, the latest makerspace in town, where techies can turn their ideas into reality (or prototypes). “We hope to be a melting pot for designers; technology, software and hardware folks,” she says, “where people can meet everyone, and ideas may just flow from there.”

Makers are part of the ground-up “Do-It-Yourself” movement that has caught on around the world in recent years. In building and experimenting with anything from tech gadgets and software to handicrafts, makers are as often taking things apart as they are putting them together. These makers are often found in co-working spaces or makerspaces, where tools like 3-D printers – and ideas – are shared.

The first community makerspace in Singapore was the Sustainable Living Labs (SL2), which opened in 2011 to “develop a responsible way of thinking about the ‘making of things’”, according to its website. Events like the Singapore Mini Maker Faire (now into its third year) have also boosted the local maker culture.

A space to experiment

Now the IDA has joined in with the opening of two Labs: one at IDA’s headquarters at Mapletree Business City (IDA Labs@HQ) and the other at the National Design Centre in Bugis (IDA Labs@NDC).

To learn how the Labs could build a more “holistic ecosystem” for makers in Singapore, Ms Chee was part of a study trip to the US, where the maker culture is more widespread.

For example, all across the country are TechShops, open-access public workshops. “When we visited them, we were quite blown away,” Ms Chee says. “They have huge, heavy duty equipment, really serious ones. And the whole place is like a gigantic workshop where you can make a lot of things.”

In Singapore, the IDA Labs, which officially opened in April 2014, provide the space and equipment (3-D printers, laser cutters, etc.) that may be costly for individuals to buy for themselves.

But beyond just creating a vibrant maker community, IDA has greater ambitions for its Labs “to build tech companies and grow tech talent within Singapore”, says Ms Chee.

The IDA hopes that the Labs will be sandboxes for students, companies and public agencies to turn their ideas into prototypes. Specifically, IDA Labs@HQ will be a space for Singapore-based companies to work with public agencies, and test ideas and products which may fulfil the tech needs of agencies.

Meanwhile, IDA Labs@NDC, which was set up with the DesignSingapore Council, is aimed at bringing tech, media and design professionals together to collaborate and test their ideas and products. It will also host programmes for companies and students to conduct workshops and experiments.

Growing local tech talent

Mr Veerappan Swaminathan, co-founder of SL2, was initially surprised to learn that the government was setting up makerspaces, which he says “are typically associated with more free-wheeling, minimal restrictions, ‘anything goes’ communities”.

The IDA is not a first-mover in the local maker scene. There is Blk 71 at Ayer Rajah Crescent (dubbed Singapore’s Silicon Valley), which is partly supported by the Media Development Authority; the independent tech-oriented co-working space HackerspaceSG, which opened in 2009; and now the Home-Fix Experience Centre at Tai Seng.

What makes the IDA Labs unique are its programmes aimed at students, entrepreneurs and the tech industry, as well as government agencies.

Ms Chee says: “We are [going] a step back by getting youth excited about technology, and teaching them how they can use these technologies.” One of her roles is to design programmes that spark youth’s interest in technology, through hands-on experimenting and model building.

During the March school holidays, students from Maris Stella, Fuchun and Rosyth schools visited IDA Labs@NDC to learn about Raspberry Pi (a microcomputer), Arduino (a microcontroller), as well as Python programming. Secondary school students can experiment with technologies such as 3-D printing and robotics through a Learn@Labs enrichment programme, a tie-up with the Ministry of Education.

For institutes of higher learning, IDA will partner tech companies to provide students with mentorship and opportunities to develop final-year projects with potential. “The students will be able to work on real projects… and hopefully, continue with what they’re doing when they graduate,” Ms Chee says.

We hope to be a melting pot for designers; technology, software and hardware folks, where people can meet everyone, and ideas may just flow from there.

Mix work with play

Public officers will benefit too. At IDA Labs@HQ, they can try out new technologies, or attend technical workshops and seminars. For instance, a recent Raspberry Pi workshop over lunch for IDA staff was “oversubscribed”, says Ms Chee.

Working with Science Centre Singapore, IDA Labs@HQ held a preview of the Singapore Mini Maker Faire for IDA staff in the run-up to the actual event in mid-July.

Officers experimented with circuitry, assembled microscope cameras for smartphones and lasered text on plastic eggs using an EggBot machine.

There are plans to have other public agencies use the Labs through invitations to its programmes, or for brainstorming or planning sessions.

For officers who are also makers, like IDA Deputy Director, Dr Ronnie Lee, the IDA Labs will let them combine “both work and play [and] enhance our creativity through experiments”, he says.

Dr Lee leads the IDA’s Urban ICT team, which studies technology areas that may be applicable to Singapore. These include virtual cities technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence. At home, he is proud of a back-up power supply that he built for his aquarium. He is now focusing on robotics in his spare time too and tinkering with an autonomous blimp controlled by a simple version of Arduino.

With the two Labs abuzz, Ms Chee is raring to make and break stuff. “We are given the opportunity and equipment; I can do a lot of things.”

    Jul 1, 2014
    Siti Maziah Masramli
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