Among all of our discoveries in Southeast Asia, one has been consistent: this is a region of simple, hands-on innovation. From using one engine to propel everything from a boat to a tractor, to repurposing everything from old tires to fallen bombshells, the people of Southeast Asia find simple solutions to real world problems. It was this culture that inspired us to connect with Makerspace Thailand – Thailand’s very first innovation and incubation center located in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Having witnessed similar maker communities in the US, we wanted to see how a creative space with everything from 3-D printers to a laser cutting machine is being utilized in a region known for its simple innovation.
After passing a bookshelf filled with 3-D printed gizmos and laser carved Star Wars X-wing models we took a seat in a rather unassuming office. On the table was a stack of papers labelled “Bomb Diffusion Guide” and an assortment of colorful, skeleton-like 3-D printings. This was the desk of Nati Sang, the founder and CEO of Makerspace Thailand. After brief introductions Nati assured us the Bomb Diffusion Guide was part of a virtual-reality game using the Oculus headset. Those skeleton-like 3D printings? A series of prototypes Nati was creating in hopes of designing a low-cost cure for club foot. With our minds at ease and curiosity piqued, Nati highlighted his journey to this humble building in Chiang Mai.
“I’m actually from Chicago and grew up in Fresno, California,” Nati told us, “but my parents are Thai.” After the dot com crash in Silicon Valley, Nati felt the urge to explore his roots and made the journey overseas to Thailand where he’s lived since. He dabbled in everything from armor to fish farming to waste recycling and corporate training. Nati fit the mold of being a serial entrepreneur but hadn’t seemed to find a niche he truly enjoyed. “I even spent a few months in the monkhood, which helped me realize what it means to be human and our place in the universe,” Nati shared with us, “I really felt a draw to do bigger things, to do something different and generate something of value.”
It was the simple innovation of his fellow Thais that grabbed Nati’s attention. He witnessed how physical innovation was almost second-nature to the Thai. While some of the solutions to real problems would be anything but pretty and elegant, they would work and get the job done. That’s when the idea of Makerspace Thailand was born. “I want to do what I can to improve Thai innovation, to make it better and help it transform this country.” It’s a noble goal and Nati may just have the means to incite such a revolution.
We left Nati’s office and began our tour through the workspace of Makerspace Thailand. 3-D printers stand across from a laser cutting machine with rows of movable wooden benches between. People huddle over laptops and hand-drawn sketches and there’s the buzz of creative energy in the air. One group is working clothing design; cutting out pieces of fabric and tracing out patterns. Meanwhile a young maker is tinkering with a camera stabilization rig and the remnants of a large drone. This is just another day inside the Makerspace Thailand workshop as we explore around.
“I want people to be able to make their ideas, not just have them.” Nati shares as he points out some 3-D printed items on a nearby table: prototypes of bottle openers and handgrips intended as aids for the elderly. Nearby are oscilloscopes and multimeters – part of an electrical workstation that also hosts a few drones in various states of build. Another section of the building holds a CNC machine and woodworking tools. Makerspace Thailand is clearly equipped to grow the ideas of its users from concept to prototype.
Nati describes this creative process in a rather simple way, “People learn to create by bashing things together.” Unlike some of the mainstream workshops back in the US, Nati incentivizes this ‘bashing together’ by making the process as affordable as possible. “We charge at-cost for 3-D printing,” he tells us, “and we teach how to use the tools free of charge.” Creating such easy entrance into the world of prototyping is sure to spur on some amazing innovation.
And Makerspace Thailand already has some successful innovation stories. “One of our members from Spain was an expert at making drones and taught some other members,” Nati recalled, “Now we create drone prototypes every week and a half and have even been recognized as drone experts by the Thai government.” Drones aside, another Makerspace Thailand member exhibited some of the classic ‘bashing together’ that Nati encourages by constructing a two degree-of-freedom racecar simulator using little more than aluminum tubing and windshield wiper motors. His simulator was even demonstrated at a recent event showcasing Thailand’s growing startup culture.
After circling our way through the workshop and the Punspace coworking space next door, we talked a bit about the future of Makerspace Thailand over some local cuisine. “I’d love to see a Makerspace in every Thai province,” Nati shared with us as part of his vision to enable and grow Thai innovation. And of course Nati has some of his own innovations he hopes to see flourish: from the items we spied on his desk to smart hydroponic systems which we suggested could one day benefit explorers traveling beyond Earth.
As we reach for a bottle of water to wash down our meal, Nati slides a couple of the 3-D printed handgrips meant to assist the elderly across the table, “What do you think?” We play with tools in our hands, each opening a bottle of water and seeing how the tools work on the plastic seals. Like the couple of engineers that we are, we mull over the benefits and drawbacks of each design. And that’s when it clicks. Makerspace Thailand is where the simple hands-on innovation of Southeast Asia meets today’s technology to create tomorrow’s future.