What we’re capable of: Tales from the Greater Hunter Makers Festival

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Last Friday and Saturday I attended the Greater Hunter Makers Festival in Newcastle, an initiative of Ai Group and a tremendous opportunity for the Hunter region to show what it’s capable of.

Every moment I spent at the festival brought another unsolicited conversation with a local maker, busy making their part of the universe better for all. I’m buzzing with excitement at the potential of this region and the capabilities we possess.

Of course, those capabilities have always been present, but like an undiscovered piano prodigy, talent can’t blossom in a vacuum. That’s what this Festival is all about for me – making connections and discovering synergies. When the dust settles and the accountants attempt to quantify the value of these two days, I hope they don’t focus on sales leads. I hope they don’t focus on new customers. I hope they give some weight to the delight I saw on streams of children discovering the joy of making. I hope they value the new links formed between local education institutions, councils and government, co-working spaces and entrepreneur incubators, manufacturers and design houses. I hope they recognise the seeds planted in the minds of budding business owners, and innovators of the future. The Makers Festival is not a trade show. It’s a talent show. And its value is in inspiration, pride and nurturing faith that the future is bright.

I caught up with the lads from Elite Robotics, bright eyed and bright minded graduates who want to bring autonomous mowing robotics to backyards around the world. We shared stories and tips on funding the dream and the challenges of getting to market. Also fresh out of university, and not content with taking on the world, the guys at Obelisk Systems were showing off their laboratory in a box, which is bound for the International Space Station later this year. We chatted about finding a niche and getting school kids excited about developing for space. The team from the Science and Engineering Challenge were there fresh from the National finals in Tasmania. Oh, did you hear who won, for the fifth time? Yep, students from local high school St Mary’s in Gateshead. We talked about the value and the demand for STEM courses and the pioneering outreach work their non-profit SMART organisation is doing.

I met the proud CEO of local manufacturer Jubilee Springs, who worked his way up from the factory floor and was just as excited as I was that the last mousetrap I bought came not from a nameless Chinese factory but from his hands. He was particularly excited to see the video of what I used it for – as the pièce de résistance in a Rube Goldberg style Halloween stunt. The Blue Zone Group stall was very impressive, showcasing their highly commendable innovative spirit in developing products for the submersible and sewer industries. I’m proud to be working with them to deliver the Australian-first pipe leak detector SewerSerpent.

The Blue Zone Group: developing products for the submersible and sewer industries.

The Blue Zone Group: developing products for the submersible and sewer industries.

I had chance encounters with mechanical engineering students designing robots and autonomous drones and mused about the combination of skills necessary to develop the next generations of electro-mechanical vehicles. A conversation out of nowhere with Graham Mitchell from Core Electronics turned into a heartfelt story about how he risked abandoning over a decade of Defence experience to have a go at sharing his love of electronics with fellow makers, and how happy he is to have discovered people that share his vision. I bumped into Nathaniel Bavinton from the council and brainstormed some ideas for getting the community to think about how the Internet of Things might improve their lives.

I snagged Prof Brett Ninness from the University of Newcastle and we got caught up talking about how the engineering syllabus needs to reflect the future of work and the soft skills engineers need to unlock value in their careers. Ton Dijkgraaf introduced himself and we discovered we’ve been beating the same drums, just out of each other’s earshot. Ton is committed to making sure his company (Sentor) remains innovative and relevant, and is excited to connect some dots with other technology pioneers.

I approached the Eighteen04 stall today to take my turn behind the desk only to be stunned by the kids manning the desk, who gave the most inspiring pitch about an innovative car parking solution developed by one of the Eighteen04 member startups. When I asked for more information they said, “contact Newie Ventures: this is the man you need to talk to”, and handed me my own business card.

I’m breathless with the conversations and encounters I had over last couple of days and I’ve left out dozens more that impacted me. Earnest kudos to Adrian Price and the team for Ai Group for their vision and tireless efforts to make this happen. And a huge congratulations to the Eighteen04 team, who selflessly volunteer their time, their expertise and their reach to ensuring the dreamers like us have a legitimate home to build our future from.

The final word goes to the dad who approached the Eighteen04 stall as most were starting to pack up this afternoon. “This is on again tomorrow right?”. I broke the bad news that he might have missed it this year. “Oh man, this is amazing. I brought my son. Ah, I really should have got here earlier. Wow. Who would of thought? Little Newcastle town. Capable of this!”.

Disclaimer: Heath Rafferty is a free agent and calls it how he sees it.

Did you attend the Greater Hunter Makers Festival last weekend? How did your day compare with Heath’s. Please share your experiences by leaving a comment below.

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Heath Raftery
Heath Raftery is the Head of Technology at Newie Ventures, a member of the Eighteen04 Tech startup co-working space in Newcastle. It aims to offer integrated, customized solutions for smart parking for the cities of the future - starting with Newcastle.
Heath Raftery

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