Thinkers, tinkers and 3-D printers

The Dutch company MX3D announced plans this year to build a 3-D printed steel walk bridge in Amsterdam.

The Dutch company MX3D announced plans this year to build a 3-D printed steel walk bridge in Amsterdam. IMAGE: MX3D, from “Amsterdam to get world’s first 3-D Printed Bridge” by Katerina Ryabets.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Growing up, my dad was a leather whip of a man who chain-smoked Winston cigarettes and spent nearly all his free time tinkering with an invention in his garage. When they first taught us how to use this new thing called “the internet” at my high school, my inaugural search was about patent law, seeking to answer dad’s handwritten questions scrawled on a grease-stained yellow notepad from the shop.

I come from a long line of tinkers, products of a condition fairly common along the back roads and railroad tracks of the Mesabi Iron Range. The mines were an engineering laboratory, but everywhere else people had to make machines last one more winter, or accomplish something not found in the owner’s manual. Innovation comes easy when you have no other choice.

Things have changed. For one thing, my dad quit smoking and moved to the suburbs. Almost as shocking, Northern Minnesota’s economy has changed, too. We still mine and log prodigious amounts of raw materials, but employ more highly trained workers in far fewer numbers. The loss of 8,000 mining jobs since 1980 reshaped the demographics of the Iron Range.

In this, our struggles are not unique. Most any place on earth accustomed to hard labor and the harvesting of natural resources knows the upheaval of new technology, new systems and new people. What has been overlooked in this tumult is the opportunity to apply the same logic to our communities that people like my dad apply to machines. Form is function. To add function, one must change form.

Great tinkers are great thinkers, but their work certainly doesn’t get as much attention as big projects backed by consultants and industrial lobbyists. Yet, many of America’s greatest innovations came from some version of tinkering — whether with soldering irons, welding torches, metal lathes or the strategic placement of ones and zeros. Many businesses right here on the Iron Range started in a garage or on a drawing board. A sustainable economy requires this to happen constantly.

Twin Cities Maker is a Minneapolis member-supported community group offering inventors and tinkers space to work in a place called “The Hack Factory.” Though dominated by hobbyists, remarkable inventions are displayed each May at the group’s annual Minne-Faire exposition, some of which show commercial potential. In recent years, clubs like this have been one of the few places where everyday entrepreneurs can get their hands on 3D printers.

Here’s why this matters. We know Northern Minnesota remains home to abundant natural resources, but we also know raw materials like minerals and wood are less profitable to sell than before. In fact, our cost of producing raw materials on the Iron Range cannot currently compete with global prices. That’s why Keewatin Taconite is entering a total shutdown this month, why United Taconite is idled, why U.S. Steel and Cliffs Natural Resources have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the last two years.

The ore is in the ground, but that is not enough to make our region prosperous.

That’s why, from an economic development standpoint, adding value to Iron Range products is so important. From Cliffs’ efforts to create higher grade iron pellets at United Taconite or Northshore, or the continued — albeit strained — hope that Essar will produce direct-reduced iron pellets at Nashwauk, value-added iron products from the Range pose the best possible future for the industry.

Same for wood. I wrote last July about Lindbäcks, the 90-year-old Swedish company that went from sawmill to lumber company to builder of prefabricated houses and apartment buildings, all to survive and thrive in an expensive labor market.

The final piece is technology.

Go online and watch what’s happening with 3-D printing. Objects made of high grade plastic, steel or even concrete may now be rendered in place without expensive dies, forms or mass production. It’s not perfect yet, but 3-D printing is advancing quickly.

What that means is that since we have raw materials, and since we have space, and since technology allows small operators to start up with historic ease, all we really need are new ideas. In fact, new ideas brought to action are far more important to the Iron Range’s economic future than the preservation of an unsustainable status quo.

So chasing smokestacks and commodities might give us short-term booms, but will prove a much less fruitful long-term strategy than turning to our thinkers and our tinkers and asking the simple question:

“What d’ya’ got?”

We need to actually listen to the answers, too, even if the person is young, or if they moved here from someplace else, or if the idea is unlike anything we’ve done before.

A little effort, ingenuity and community support could allow the tinker tradition of Northern Minnesota to click, clang, buzz and bleep its way to our best possible tomorrow. This is what sustainable development looks like.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. You don’t have to go all the way down to metro-land to get to a maker space, there’s one open now in Duluth. They’ve got all sorts of neat stuff and people. Stop by and check it out:

  2. I think it is so valuable that you keep pointing our the need to look to the future, not the past, for economic security. Many people have difficulty hearing this message, as indicated by the recent election results.

  3. Independent says

    I agree with you 100% about increasing value add products and new enterprises on the Range. Is it not possible though to push and support these ideas and support our existing and soon to be mining operations. An all of the above approach seems to be the desire of my friends and neighbors here on the east side of the range.

    • I’m not much for the whole “this side of the Range” talk. The economic conditions in Nashwauk are strikingly similar to the ones in Aurora or Buhl. I get what you’re saying, though. Pushing for economic diversification does not require opposition to mining. That’s very true. Here is why I continue to phrase my message the way I do. I could sit here and tell you “we need to do both” and all people will really hear is a continued hope for an upswing in commodities (prosperity) and investment in PolyMet (external forces). That has been the general attitude of the Iron Range for two decades, or more. It’s a waste of our time. PolyMet and Twin Metals have policy matters in front of them now, but only one thing determines whether they go or not — whether the money comes. And not a soul on the Range controls that. I am fixated on putting maximum regional effort into factors we do control — our communities, our tech infrastructure and our attitude toward new people and ideas. Doing those things will be helpful if nonferrous mining happens and absolutely critical if it doesn’t, or if it isn’t the boon it claims to be. Either way, it’s worth doing.

      My larger point is that there are things we could do together that do not require a loyalty test for or against new mining.

      • Independent says

        I only mention the east side in reference to where my family and many of our friends live and therefore where the vast majority of my conversations about these topics occur.

  4. It really makes sense to capture the full value of a natural resource in the final product rather than sell the raw resource for pennies. And it produces more jobs.

  5. This is a very good piece that touches on our problems and opportunities.

    I grew up here too. There is an unbelievable amount of talent and inventiveness in the people working here. I can’t think of anywhere else where four or more people per block in town have a welder, machine tools, or wood shop in the garage. Certainly not in a Twin Cities suburb. I won’t even begin to go into the “Learning Centers” mandated by union contract for the mining company employees. The products that are turned out are phenomenal.

    In many cases the people doing this are the same ones who are constant complainers at work. Yet they do the same thing in the garage they do in the mines. Weld, fabricate, machine, wire, woodwork, or designing things. In the garage they’re smiling.

    What we lack is an entrepreneurial spirit or mindset that can take some of these ideas and run with them. The mindset around here has been to rely on someone else for your living, working for the mines or whatever. Our culture is to work for someone else doing what they tell us to do, not to go into business for ourselves.

    If we’re going to survive the continued decline of the mines, we have to change this. I don’t claim to know how, but I suspect it will have to start in school or somewhere. It certainly isn’t being done now.

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