Competitive engineering TV show Make48 brings championship event to UMKC

Make48 took over the UMKC Makers’ Space for the 2023 National Competition. // Photo by Sarah Moore

The competition TV show Make48 brought its cameras to UMKC for the sixth season finale—the national championship. This show brings seven teams from across the country together for a weekend of innovation and the chance to win $10,000.

For 48 hours, the teams of four brainstorm, research, and build an entirely original product. Then, in front of their families, sponsors, and fellow competitors, they will present the new product to a panel of judges.

T-Mobile, this year’s championship challenge sponsor, chose animal wellness and transportation as the broad theme for the product. On the first day, each team spent the first few hours brainstorming and researching issues within the theme that they could solve with their product.

Competitors and the crew gather to start the 48-hour countdown.

Every group came off a state win to qualify for the national competition. Talking to some of the teams during their brainstorming phase, they were relaxed, confident, and excited about the opportunity to compete. 

The team from Madison, Wisconsin, The Stellar Tech Girls, comprises three camp counselors and the instructor of Stellar Tech Girls, a program in their hometown that offers workshops and camps for girls and non-binary kids to learn more about engineering. The theme at their state competition was sustainable mobility—very broad and not very personal. Animal wellness is near and dear to them, so they were already buzzing with creative energy trying to come up with a product.

“We all have pets that we love,” Stellar Tech Girl Ella Burmania says. “So, this one is very easy to picture making change and helping people.”

Since these teams had worked together before, they knew how to organize their time. The brainstorming was filled with excited chatter and members throwing out idea after idea until one sparked inspiration. 

“The nerves will come later, before the presentation,” Little Red Hen’s member Lyra Thompson says. “Right now, we’re just trying to communicate our idea so that we can bring it to life.”

The Kansas City home team, the Little Red Hens, is made up of students and an instructor from the Kansas State School for the Blind. After asking them what it felt like to be the home team, they looked at each other and started laughing.

The Little Red Hens said no idea was too crazy when brainstorming.

“We’re proving that everyone in Kansas isn’t a wheat farmer,” Thompson says. However, once the laughter subsided, Thompson adds that even more important than representing their hometown, they’re working for the blind community.

“Our disability doesn’t limit what we can do,” Thompson says. “It just gives us a unique perspective on our product.” 

The teams break for a meal but are quick to get back to work. Once they have fleshed out an idea, they present it to patent lawyers who ensure their invention doesn’t already exist. Getting the green light after this step means it’s time to start making a blueprint. Most teams stayed until midnight on the first day to finalize their ideas before shopping for building materials to bring their prototypes to life.

One of the most notable aspects of Make48 is the people it attracts. The teams have four members, but the only rule is that at least one person must be over 18. Some of the teams were made up of families, friends, and colleagues. A handful of the teams, like The Stellar Tech Girls, were made with members that were strangers before the competition, but brought together by a mentor.

On Saturday, the second day of the competition, the teams arrived bright and early to make sure they had a complete plan and list of materials before going shopping in the afternoon. Competition helpers and innovation experts called “Tool Techs” were the team’s go-to resource when making their plans.

Tool Techs are the “secret sauce” of Make48, according to the show co-creator and CEO, Tom Gray. They are a team of skilled technicians that help take ideas off the page and turn them into functioning products. They are available for any construction problems or team questions during the design process.

Ella B shows the product plan that won The Stellar Tech Girls first place at their qualifying competition.

Travis Putman and Stan Fernald are two of the most experienced Tool Techs in the competition. They have been working on the show since the very beginning as 3D printing experts and say they couldn’t imagine not coming back because Make48 is unlike anything else.

“The energy is indescribable, like a blissful, creative catharsis,” Fernald says. “It’s problem-solving on steroids.”

Putman says that even after years of working for the competition, the spirit of innovation has never changed. He says teams come in with “no drama” and just want to work.

“It’s all about coming up with new ideas and solving problems,” Putman says. 

For the final part of the competition, Tool Techs take a step back as competitors must prepare to present to the judges. The pitch includes a short video to explain and sell their product and a spoken portion where the team will show the individual components of their prototype.

Competitors are also expected to define a target market and price point. All of the products have a maximum budget of $500, but many teams were able to offer a cost less than $200 by using economical materials. 

The team from Little Rock, Arkansas, BruWin, was made up of students and a teacher from the pre-engineering and Robotics program at Pulaski Academy. During their presentation, they gave some background into the “why” for their project, taking inspiration from an event that affected them during the weekend. 

On their first day of competition in Kansas City, a tornado devastated their hometown. As they explained in their presentation, it was hard to think of anything else, so they decided to build a project that could be used to help animals in natural disaster conditions like Little Rock was experiencing. 

The audience settles in to watch the teams’ judge presentations.

Don’t hate me, but I can’t tell you who won this competition. I will let slip that the winning team and their families lept with joy when their name was announced, mouths open with surprise that they came out on top when the competition was so skilled and practiced.

In addition to the $10,000 first-place prize, there were two other trophies up for grabs in this competition. For the first time, Make48 gave one team the “Spirit Award,” and T-Mobile sponsored the “Tech Award.”

To win the Spirit Award, the teams were given a little bit of homework. In an attempt to increase popularity for the show and recognition for the teams, each group was required to create social media accounts. The team with the most online impressions was given the Spirit Award.

For the Tech Award, T-Mobile provided options for each team to incorporate cameras, sensors, speakers, and other technology in their product. The team that used these resources most creatively and practically was named the recipient. 

No group went home empty-handed, though. With the help of the DeBruce Center, artist Patti Dobrowolski made cartoon renderings of each presentation. She scribbled and shaded while the teams were presenting to give them a unique gift to remember the experience.

Patti Dobrowolski live-drew cartoons of each presentation for the team to take home.

To learn more about the products and who took home the grand prize, tune into the Roku Channel in October and November. Make48 will release four episodes centered around this weekend of competition.

While these episodes are airing the competition will be hosting yet another national competition. They have already scheduled four more state competitions this year. The top two competitors from each will move on to the national competition that will air in 2024.

If you’re already hooked, five seasons are available to watch on PBS for free—a perfect way to binge the competition. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to form a team of your own.

Categories: Culture