Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Inventor’s Playground

Shared Workspaces (complete with 3d printers) are giving aspiring entrepreneurs a low-risk way to test ideas and build prototypes. Is this the future of product innovation?

Milwaukee Makerspace (Pete Prodoehl / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
On a sultry summer evening, a group of young people mills around in a graffiti-daubed alleyway in Toronto, playing with fire. Literally. And not just a lighter's worth. They're in the midst of constructing an out-sized arcade game that shoots flames, supplied by a series of industrial-strength spigots linked to propane tanks. The flames light up whenever a player gets a ball into a hole. Once complete, the apparatus will be shipped to Nevada to become part of the Burning Man festival's "charcade."

This pyrotechnic contraption was built in a so-called "maker-space" (a.k.a. hackspace) known as the site3 CoLaboratory, a two-storey former blacksmith's shop that now houses all manner of machinery, including a 3D printer, metal lathe, wood router and laser cutter.

Site3 is a not-for-profit that offers memberships to urban gadget aficionados who want to make stuff that requires gear most people don't have the space or the money to own.

"It's a pretty eclectic group of people," says board member Rod Frey, an expat Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, as he picks his way past inventors in the throes of developing projects. Site3 members range from data geeks to machinists to architects , making everything from jewelry to concept art. Co-founder Seth Hardy, a computer security expert by day and a "fire art" enthusiast on his own time, says site3 is used primarily by tinkerers but also attracts would-be entrepreneurs who want to build proto-types or test concepts. Frey, in fact, developed a line of eyeglasses at site3 that he has turned into a business venture.

Site3 is part of a much broader makerspace movement that is rapidly gathering momentum across Europe and North America, especially with the advent of 3D printers that are still too expensive for most startups. There are an estimated 400 makerspaces world-wide, plus a growing spinoff industry of "maker fairs" that connect thousands of gadget hounds with gear manufacturers such as Arduino, an Italy-based firm that makes low-cost chips well suited to inventors.

Entrepreneurship expert Elspeth Murray, a professor at the Queen's School of Business, describes makerspaces as "a bit of a revolution" that could kick-start domestic small-scale manufacturing.  "I've seen lots of signals that suggest it will happen," she says, citing several U.S. startups -including Pebble, a smartwatch company that raised more than $10 million on Kickstarter- that trace their origins to open-access workshops like California's Tech-Shop, a nine-location makerspace chain.

Indeed, former Wired editor Chris Anderson, whose robotics-kit startup is popular with the makerspace crowd, has argued that makerspaces could even trigger the next industrial revolution.

Chains such as TechShop and FabLabs, the latter of which emerged from MIT, allow anyone with an idea to come in, acquire some technical training and start making stuff in exchange for a membership fee. Although some chains are for-profit oper-ations, there's strong emphasis on collaboration and open-source idea-sharing.

Asylum, in Boston, is one of the largest makerspaces, with a 40,000-sq.-ft. workshop and several full-time staffers. Most other makerspaces are much smaller, and operate mainly as volunteer-run not-for-profits. (Needless to say, there's lots of information online about how to set up a makerspace.) Each facility has its own specialty.

Kwartzlab, a four-year-old makerspace in Kitchener, Ont., is arts-focused and features events such as "craft jams." Members of Protospace, which operates out of a Calgary warehouse, are drawn more toward robotics. Still others are tech-oriented. Last year, a group of Windsor, Ont., programmers established Hackforge in a spare room of the city's main library. The members focus on game development and open data; during Hackforge's first year, two founders joined forces to launch IT consultancy Parallel 42 Systems.

Board member Mita Williams, a user-experience librarian at the University of Windsor, says users also have access to a range of tools, from soldering irons to a 3D printer donated by the university's engineering lab. "Right now," she notes, "someone is using it to make a new 3D printer."

Queen's, meanwhile, recently launched Canada's first public, on-campus makerspace, Sparq Labs, using equipment housed at the university and some privately owned gear.  Some aspiring creators come with hobby projects, but many others have ideas for what they hope will be commercial inventions. Murray notes that manufacturing giants, including Ford, have begun buying employees makerspace memberships to encourage bottom-up innovation. The point is: you never know where inspired tinkering will lead.

At Hackforge, the roster of machines includes a Commodore 64, which attracts curiosity from the younger members and spurs a little intergenerational hackery. Says Williams: "It's that classic concept that ideas need space where unexpected collisions take place."
Although a kind of museum piece, that vintage computer serves as a reminder of how hobbies and tinkering can change the world.

An introverted Seattle undergrad named Bill Gates once ordered himself a DIY mini-computer featured in Popular Mechanics and started rewriting the software. Hewlett-Packard and Apple also trace their origins to inauspicious garages and basement workshops.

Could the next huge innovation pop out of a makerspace? Murray, for her part, thinks it's almost inevitable: "This is the garage
phenomenon on steroids."

Author: John Lorinc

1 comment:

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