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Engineering...Beyond the Classroom

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Visiting a 'Makerspace'

Posted June 13, 2013 3:46 PM by HUSH

Crowdsourcing has become the new way of financing just about anything these days - films, music, food, inventions, whatever. And Kickstarter has become the go-to source for finding investors. Inventors or artists propose an idea on the website and ask people to pledge money to see the project financed. These micro-financers typically get some sort of reward for their support, even if it's just a 'Thank you', but that's not to say the most-deserving or innovative projects always attract the most investments. Some of the highest-grossing projects in Kickstarter's existence have been ideas that don't seem very good at all. I suppose there really is a sucker born every minute.

However, there appears to be salvation from the indiscriminate collaboration offered by the internet. Since at least 2006, the German idea of 'makerspaces' has spread across Deutsche borders and then across oceans. A makerspace is a center which provides its due-paying members access to tools, programs, machinery and resources that they as individuals couldn't afford. Not only are they a means of empowering small-time inventors, entrepreneurs and students, they also serve as a knowledge-sharing environment. Collaboration between members is the lifeblood of a makerspace. (In a twisted way, it's the real life counterpart to CR4.)

Across town from CR4-HQ, our city recently got its first makerspace. The Tech Valley Center of Gravity opened in May and frankd20 - known to be somewhat of an inventor himself - visited the center and received the grand tour. Without further ado, here is the first-person narrative of his sightseeing.


I stopped in the other day to visit the Tech Valley Center of Gravity located in Troy, N.Y. I walked over to the place expecting to only be able to look in the window as I had looked on their website and they weren't shown as being open during the time I went. I had some business nearby and the center was close so I decided it was worth walking over to take a look. As I approached, I saw a Spiderman mannequin in the front window and then I saw someone sitting at a table. I tried the doors and was happy to see they were not locked. I walked up to the gentleman sitting at the front table and introduced myself and told him I wanted to look around. He was very friendly and said he was happy to show me the equipment. As I looked around inside, I realized that there were a handful of people working on various projects that I couldn't see from outside. One gentleman was sitting at a computer next to the two laser cutting machines. On the table opposite him, past two 3D printers, were some people working on a project, and next to them was what looked like two Styrofoam coolers stacked together and covered in aluminum foil. I first got the tour of some of the equipment, including the two large milling machines and two lathes which I was told were named Laurel and Hardy.

I began to talk to some of the people working on projects to get an idea of what the place was about. I also explored the biochemistry lab on my own and looked in their storage/junk room; in other words, I felt right at home. As I was looking around, two women stopped in to see what the place was about, as well as inquire about membership and various projects. I realized that my random visit to look around was probably not out of the norm for this newly-started group.

As I was talking to some of the members, someone I recognized walked in dressed in a suit. He told me he had a meeting set up to talk with one of the founders of the TVCoG, Laban Coblentz. Laban wasn't there yet so we ended up chatting about the place. Laban, also dressed in a suit from a previous meeting with the press, showed up shortly. I didn't want to hijack my friend's meeting but I was invited to tag along as Laban and my friend talked about the place.

This is a place that is set up for the DIY-type of person. The facility has a number of machine tools: lathes and mills for metal; saws, sanders and planers for wood; 3D printers and laser cutters for plastic, and much more. They also have equipment for electronics as well as chemistry. All tooling aside, I think one of the biggest advantages of this place is the sharing of knowledge to help develop, designs, and in-general, innovate. They bill themselves as being a place for makers, hackers, crafters and artists to tinker.

A look at the calendar of events reveals hands-on events for kids and adults, such as making a robotic hand or programing for the Raspberry Pi. They also have occasional junk jams where recycled and broken electronics are disassembled for their valuable parts. The center believes that individuals should break the cycle of wasteful consumerism by repurposing useful components in other devices.

Laban handed me a packet which details some of the costs of membership and what it entails you as well as the terms and what is expected. In order to use the space you have to be a member, and pay a monthly fee ($60). There is a discount for students ($30) and also for volunteering your time ($20 for 8 hours) to make it more affordable. Finally, a 24/7 pass is available for $100 month.

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