The creative genius Leonardo Da Vinci is credited with blending art, engineering and science during the Italian Renaissance. Da Vinci toiled in solitude, but present day innovators, designers and artists are joining the maker movement and exploring ideas, processes and problem solving in a social learning environment. Known as makerspaces, hackerspaces or even fablabs, these organizations are community centers and networks for creative people.
“We’re like the YMCA for people who make stuff,” says Hannah Wides, manual operations manager at Open Works, a nonprofit makerspace in Baltimore. People gravitate to makerspaces for many reasons. There is the social aspect generated though shared interests and exploration, but mainly individuals want to be inspired and tinker on their own projects.
Wides explains, “Some people can’t or don’t want to invest in a home shop, and then there are entrepreneurs using our facility as an affordable new business incubator.”
New makerspace locations are sprouting up nationally and worldwide. In the last decade, the number of makerspaces globally has grown from about 100 to approximately 1,500 today. The White House even hosted its first Maker Faire in 2014 and a year later, established an annual National Week of Making, held each June.
It’s the do-it-yourself culture and the release of human potential that’s fueling this grassroots movement. People are rejecting mass consumption, seeking meaningful work and have a desire to understand new and emerging technologies. These local hubs have become a creative resource for their own communities and a support system for every generation of makers.
Typically nonprofit, makerspaces are financed through corporate donations, foundation grants, fundraising, tax credits and public support. Anyone in the community can pay a monthly membership fee, much like a gym membership, to gain access to equipment housed on-site in makerspace workshops. Along with classes, social events, craft and hardware supplies, digital technology and computer labs, members gain access to powerful machine tool technology used in professional fabrication shops – 3-D printers, laser etchers, milling machines, wood routers, plasma systems and even waterjet cutters – to complete their DIY projects.
Josh Bushueff, director of the Claremont MakerSpace in Claremont, N.H., says, “The goal is to make high-quality fabrication tools available to the community through open-access workshops. The range of high-tech and traditional tools available in our workshops would be incredibly difficult for an individual person to amass and maintain. By housing these resources in a shared space that’s available via monthly membership, we can substantially lower the cost of access so projects aren’t delayed while people wait for their tax return or the ‘right time’ to buy, or worse, never get made at all.”
Makerspaces know that plasma cutting technology is a must-have tool for their fabrication workshops, and DIYers experiment with plasma’s ability to cut, gouge and mark metal. Part of plasma’s appeal is its capacity to span projects. Members can use it to create intricate designs on metal plate or go in a whole other direction, and use it to fabricate structures or even modify a piece of metal furniture.
When Bushueff and his team selected the Hypertherm Powermax85 for their makerspace, they wanted a plasma system with a lot of power so members would have the option to cut a wider range of metal thicknesses.
“We wanted a bigger, better plasma tool that offered plenty of flexibility,” he explains. “We wanted something beyond what would be found in most hobby shops or residential garages. We wanted folks to have equipment to work on projects that were previously out of their range.”
Makerspaces are very popular in major cities where real estate and additional workspace is expensive. Often, members work together on projects, using crowdfunding to get the money they need for more complex projects.
That’s how Gretchen Greene joined the movement. She became one of nearly 300 members at a makerspace called Artisan’s Asylum after reading about a project called “Stompy,” a 2-ton, six-legged, rideable hydraulic steel robot. The project was crowdfunded by a Kickstarter campaign and caught the attention of someone at the Boston Globe once public donations neared $100,000. A bevy of Artisan’s Asylum members, including Greene, worked on the hexapod in the makerspace’s 40,000-sq.-ft. workshop located in a reclaimed factory building in Somerville, Mass.
With a desire to make giant robots of her own, Greene completed the basic plasma safety and operator training offered to Artisan’s Asylum members. Greene says she “fell in love with plasma,” leading to a career as a professional metal sculptor. Her intricate large-scale sculptures have appeared in Architectural Digest and furnished the fashion house of Dior.
While she did use the Asylum’s CNC plasma system to cut metal parts for Stompy, it was truly the hand-held torch that inspired Greene, as it “gives me a feeling of connection to the steel and the ability to design in real time.”
The Artisan’s Asylum has a Powermax30 used for cutting by hand and an automated Powermax85 set up on their light industrial CNC table. “Before the Hypertherm plasma, tool reliability was a real issue,” according to Greene, who was frustrated by the performance of the existing tools. The Asylum’s first plasma system broke repeatedly and was replaced with another brand, which sadly, lasted less than four days.
“When I left on Friday it was working; when I returned on Monday it was not,” Greene notes.
Fortunately, the Artisan’s Asylum chose Hypertherm the third time around. However, Greene could not wait for that decision to be made. “That Monday,” she says, “I researched who made the best plasma cutters, called a Hypertherm dealer and bought my own Powermax45 the next day.”
That was six years ago. Greene continues to keep her Powermax45 in her storage locker at the Artisan’s Asylum and it is always there when she needs it. “It works just like the day I bought it,” she says.
Open Works in Baltimore owns two Hypertherm plasma systems as well – a Powermax65 on a light industrial cutting table and a Powermax30 with a hand-held torch. This makerspace offers two three-hour classes to train members on CNC plasma cutting, but most people also get one-on-one training with staff. Member Jo Schneider, a licensed and LEED certified architect in sustainable design, took this class. Schneider designs public sculpture professionally, but reserves time at Open Works for personal projects.
Another Open Works member who regularly uses plasma is Mimi Frank, a local artist who made a beautiful sculptural chair with the Powermax65. And it’s not just members utilizing the equipment. Open Works’ staff has used the system to fabricate the fixtures and hardware needed to organize their own workshop.
Anyone interested in joining the maker movement should do a quick Google search to find a makerspace in your area. Makerspace websites often publish their equipment list and workshop layouts, so potential members can see what’s available to use. If you do not have a makerspace close by, grab your friends and start your own. There are makerspace resources and playbooks online to guide the way.