Buenos Aires… Where to begin?! This city moves with gentle grace despite its gargantuan size, the third largest metropolitan region in Latin America. It’s calm and quaint in corners, quilted with parks and public spaces, but beware the buses; they’ll rip down streets no matter how narrow as if the pavement were on fire.
Because of the inference of Madultery in my otherwise charmed life, I’ve been stranded in Buenos Aires longer than I had originally planned. But while my debit card chased me around the world, and I hunted down the new registration paperwork for Violetta, my famous purple van, the space-time-travel continuum sorted itself out really well. I’m staying with the Hit the Wave guys, the intrepid and absurdly kind Argentinian surfers from whom I bought Violetta in Chile. And during my extended stay in this enormous city, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to visit with many makers and shakers.
It all started three weeks ago. Fab Lab Argentina and Ilaria La Manna, who’s worked with the Floating Fab Lab since its conception in 2013, hosted the country’s first ever public drone race at Centro Cultural General San Martín. What a cool thing! The ultimate Nerd Sport! In turns, seven men donned synchronized goggles and flew their drone around a circular course, navigating obstacles and threading hoops.
The entire event was made interesting and fun for spectators with a soundtrack composed of old and new Greenday songs and funky purple and blue disco lights. This is an emerging sport, and even the best need continued practice. The pilots often lost control of their drones, but the course was surrounded by mesh netting so spectators wouldn’t get a drone propeller to the face. Still, time had to be paused to remove many a drone mangled in the netting. The entire event was highly amusing.
After the successful completion of the drone race and the emotional awards ceremony, I accompanied Ilaria and her fleet of maker friends to a local restaurant, where we feasted on traditional Argentinian asado. Argentinians really know how to prepare and consume meat. Grilled to succulent perfection. During dinner I sat next to Tomás Chernoff, a talkative young man with his own 3D printing company, CHE3D, which was one of the sponsors of the drone race. Over our tender steaks, he told me about how he’d busted his shoulder wake boarding when he popped off two converging waves and ended up landing partly on the ground instead of in the water. Several doctors told him he needed surgery and that because of the invasive quality of that particular surgery he would never fully regain extension in his joint. That wasn’t good enough for Tomás, and he delved into researching medical journals. He 3D scanned and printed his shoulder joint and developed a plan that would enable him to make a full recovery. He found a lawyer and a surgeon willing to experiment with his new concept, and then he went under the knife. The surgery was successful, his shoulder healed completely, and in the intervening years he’s written reports on the clinical trial and many others have undergone the same surgery with positive results.
Two years ago Tomás founded CHE3D, a local Buenos Aires small business specializing in 3D printing. They provide products, such as printers and filament, services, such as inventing things for people who need a unique solution, and they attend events, such as 3D Fashion Day, Latin America’s first ever 3D printed fashion show, held recently in Cordoba. CHE3D builds their printers in store and even makes their own filament out of recycled plastic. When my pen ran dry and I asked where to throw it away, Tomás disassembled the plastic pieces to use for later. They’re experimenting with filaments, putting different colors in the same cartridge. Tomás is a huge fan of PLA, a biodegradable form of plastic, much better for the environment than ABS. Additionally, the production process is different; making regular plastic generates CO2, whereas making PLA consumes CO2. (Don’t ask me how.) Tomás said he’d like to open a PLA factory in Buenos Aires.
Three years ago using a 3D printer Tomás developed the “Selfiepod.” Shortly thereafter the “Selfie Stick” gained traction and his first invention never really got massively popular, though he continues to manufacture and sell it around the world. So Tomás switched his focus to what he was really passionate about. “When you have a 3D printer you can do whatever you want,” Tomás said. He started CHE3D alone, but he was rapidly joined by others and now they have four offices in Argentina, including one in Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of the populated world.
A couple days earlier Ilaria had put me in contact with Francesco Milano, who had helped her found Fab Lab Buenos Aires in ’13, and now runs his own Makerspace called TaMaCo. For its one year anniversary, TaMaCo is undergoing some renovations to make space for a new CNC mill. The Makerspace operates out of CheLa, a massive former asbestos factory. Obviously, those days are long gone, and CheLa is now a hub for technology and art. In the huge industrial halls they host concerts and film projections because of the excellent audio. There’s space for temporary residents who visit from all over the world to work on a particular project or to be inspired to learn something new. There’s a repair shop and a woodworking studio. Their philosophy fosters many cross-disciplinary projects. TaMaCo held a program to make masks for Carnival, developed a social project to build a dome out of cardboard using parametric design, and most recently improved a public space by building benches and painting murals.
As I mentioned, a small group of dedicated makers including Ilaria founded Fab Lab Buenos Aires in ’13, but a few months later strange coup d’etat transpired, and the government appropriated their original space, handing over management to someone else. Swirling maker politics ensued. Ilaria and her friends had already begun hosting workshops within San Martín, and they went on to found Fab Lab Argentina at the end of ’13 in the Societedad Central de Arquitectos (SCA). They operated for a couple years at this location, but the SCA inexplicably started raising their rent bit by bit until it became impossible to stay, and in late ’15 they packed up shop. Now they have no physical space, but San Martín allows them to offer workshops on a range of subjects. Most recently during the Fab Lat Fest, Fab Lab Argentina hosted a series of workshops for Fab Lat Kids. In conjunction with a Fab Lab in Mexico, they built a rhinoceros out of laser cut cardboard shapes. Additionally, according to their own creative prerogatives, children decorated their own EmOsille, a chair Ilaria developed to help teach kids about digital fabrication.
When Fab Lab Argentina left the SCA building, Ilaria left Buenos Aires to attend HTGAA, first in Lima and then Boston, where Kate Adamala was one of her teachers. Together they developed the concept for a bracelet that works with biosensors to detect contamination levels in water. Kids wear the bracelets, submerge their hands, and then record the data the bracelet reads. After they secure funding, Ilaria would like to see a second prototype of the bracelet, one where the types of contamination are not only automatically detected, but also digitally collected and sent to a database which will generate a map of river pollution. This method of data collection involves locals, helps them gather immediate information on the status of their water supply, and also shares the same information with the world. Ilaria’s bracelet project will ultimately be used by the Floating Fab Lab with its educational workshop component, but it could be easily replicated with any large water source.
My ongoing visit to Argentina corresponded nicely with the first Buenos Aires Mini Maker Faire. I met many members of the Latin American maker community, including Leo Saccomanno of BariBits in Bariloche, Argentina, doing great work for kids with Little Bits, and members of Fab Lab Atacama in Antofagasta, Chile, who were sharing a remote-controlled robot built from Legos. Another drone race was scheduled in the early evening, but this race, built for speed and not dexterity, lacked the colorful flair of Ilaria’s event. The air of the Maker Faire tinkled with the typical binging and flitzing of dozens of sensor-controlled noise makers, cute R2D2 droids, and games and bubbles and pinball machines. Kids darted everywhere of course, fascinated by the many flashing robots and bright, imaginative 3D printed objects on display.
If you liked the pictures in this blog article, please consider following the Floating Fab Lab on Instragram. I’ve been managing their social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter too), and though it’s not my particular specialty, I’m definitely enjoying sharing the things I’ve discovered on my journey around South America. It’s certainly given me the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting and passionate people. Buenos Aires is an exciting and diverse place, and my experiences exploring the independent maker community here have enabled me to see and learn a lot of new things. In fact, I’ve been here so long, I’m developing solid friendships, and that’s something I’ll always be especially grateful for.
See you again next year, Argentina! Next stop: Uruguay!