‘Makerspaces’ help make dreams a reality

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By Dennis E Powell, Athens News Staff


They’re called “makerspaces,” and they are to manufactured goods what “farm to fork” is to foodstuffs.

Many people have heard of the “farm to fork” idea: planting the seed, growing, harvesting, processing where necessary, and serving foodstuffs, all locally. It has become a popular trend in much of the world.

The “makerspace” idea is much the same but for people who want to create things you don’t eat. It’s coming to our area in several related but different forms.

As the name implies, it’s space where people can make things. It includes equipment that is shared among the makerspace members, users or clients. The idea has gotten traction in the last decade or so, and ranges from craft areas associated with libraries and schools to early business development and technical training programs.

Much of that will be available in makerspaces on schedule to open in the next year in Athens and Nelsonville. At the high end, they’ll fit in with existing business-development assistance, but they’re not just for those who wish to develop the next big thing.

The first on tap to open is ReUse Industries’ Athens Makerspace at 751 W. Union St., which Executive Director Zachary Holl says will be open before the end of the year. In some respects, it’s a huge expansion of the ReUse tool-lending library started a little more than a year ago. “Though we joke that we should have a log-splitter lending library,” said Holl. “It’s the most popular tool.”

Athens Makerspace will give those who lack the space or money access to a wide variety of tools and workshops: the metal shop is to be equipped with welding, milling and other machinery; the wood shop is to include a CNC milling machine as well as other high-end woodworking tools; the fabric and fiber shop is planned to offer commercial grade sewing, serging and printing equipment; and the electronics shop is to be fully equipped. There will be 3-D printing and laser cutting on site as well.

“We do and will have an emphasis on fabric-related activities precisely because of our organization’s mission to generate economic development from the waste stream, and therefore I have an interest in making sure that aspect is always part of our messaging,” Holl said. “We aim to get otherwise-discarded fabric materials including clothing into the hands of people to make products, including clothing, and to teach design, fabrication, and sales and marketing skills to help them do that.”

As with the tool library, Athens Makerspace will operate by way of membership. Training will be offered for those who need to be checked out on the equipment and who wish to develop or enhance their skills, with meeting and classroom space at the site.

An important part of the operation will be ReUse West, a retail store that will differ from the organization’s thrift store on Columbus Road in that it won’t be a thrift shop. Instead, it will include a used book store, a fabrics store, and space for makerspace members to sell their goods. “As engagement grows, we plan to sell locally made upcycled products in our retail outlets,” Holl said. The retail store, along with ReUse Industries’ growing computer refurbishment business, will help to make the makerspace self-sustaining, he added.

Holl pointed out that the space is not exclusively for those seeking to establish businesses. Woodworkers or metal workers who wish to ply their craft will be welcome as well, as will other crafts people.

So a person who has in mind a design for, say, a coffee table but who lacks the equipment to make it will have access to what’s needed to make the idea a reality. Of course, if having done so the person is so pleased with the results that he or she decides to make more coffee tables for sale, there will be other assistance as well, both on site and elsewhere.

Here the process is parallel to farm-to-fork, where a person growing food and bringing it to those who eat it might start out interested in bringing produce no farther than from the garden to their own kitchen table, but then discover a desire to expand to sales at farmers markets and perhaps even develop a line of products for commercial sale. (Around here, such persons often get help on their journey from ACEnet, the foodstuff-heavy business incubator at 94 Columbus Road. ACEnet was the repository of some machine tools donated by Ohio University, which have gone now to Athens Makerspace.)

If the person decides to develop a full-fledged furniture-making company, to use the example of the coffee table maker, he or she might be eligible for help from the Innovation Center, Ohio University’s business incubator, which offers assistance learning the business side of things.

While some of the facilities will be the same, the approach is slightly different at the Hocking College Innovation Gateway and Makerspace on West Columbus Street in Nelsonville, just off the Public Square. Its focus will be on developing skills to make the individual eligible for higher wages, explained Sean Terrell, director of Workforce Development and Special Programs at Hocking College. It’s in keeping with the school’s accent on short-term – five weeks to a year – certificate-based workforce training classes.

“We’re looking at injecting more entrepreneurial skills into our programming here,” said Terrell. “If I’m a welder and I’m taking advanced welding, I can get a 6G pipe certification and go weld natural gas pipe. Or I could go open up my own fabricating business. If I’m a CDL truck driver, I could go work for J.B. Hunt or I could subcontract and own my own truck – those kinds of things.

“Looking at this, and the economic development that’s going on in the region, bridging the workforce development and the entrepreneurial skills, it’s a great opportunity for makerspaces and business incubators,” Terrell said. “What we’re doing is partnering with Ohio University. They have started this grow-your-own mentality here in the region, through their LIGHTS network. With significant federal funding, they’ve started this makerspace, business incubator, small business development movement here. So we’ve joined into their network.

“There’s no way you can do it all in one building,” he added, noting that those involved in one facility in the network will have access to other facilities, including a makerspace and co-working space in Marietta and another in Somerset, in Perry County. “Not only that, but we’ve actually provided social-service wraparound that can provide transportation to and from different facilities.

“For instance, if you were working on a prototype for a whatever, maybe you’re using the 3-D printer at the Nelsonville makerspace, and you want to run a proof of concept or you need some additional incubation or acceleration services, you could access that end of the network at the Innovation Center at OU,” Terrell said.

The Nelsonville makerspace plans to offer four shops, which are called studios there: a fully equipped wood shop, a fabric and textile shop, a craft beer facility – “We’ll have a couple fermenters and a brew house,” Terrell said, as well as aid from the Hocking College fermentation science program that starts in fall 2018 – and a metal fabrication shop.

“That will be on the bottom floor,” he said. “Then upstairs will be a teck hub, with computer space, computer stations with high-speed broadband access, as well as some office space that will be utilized as shared use or co-working space.”

Arrangements for participation in the Nelsonville makerspace are still being figured out. It is likely to open early next fall.

Both Holl and Terrell credited help received from OU’s Jennifer Simon, for a number of years the director of the Innovation Center and now executive director for regional innovation. She is involved with numerous workforce and economic-development programs, particularly through the Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability – “LIGHTS” – which is sponsored by a three- year grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

She says makerspaces and the like are fundamental to rebuilding our dreams.

“When I attended the Sam Quinones speech at OU,” she said, “one of the things that he said that really stuck with me is ‘heroin is what you get when you destroy dreamland.’ That’s exactly what we’re seeing in our communities.

“When you use the word ‘entrepreneurial’ in some communities, people will say, ‘What is that?’ It’s not that they’re stupid; it’s just not how they’d describe owning a business,” Simon said. “So we describe it as potential opportunity for lots of people who have lost their jobs, been displaced, are underemployed, to find a new, maybe secondary, source of income, by using the different pieces of equipment that exist in any of these makerspaces. Or it’s a way for people to identify their primary source of income.”

In some cases this will involve starting a small business, she said, or producing something on a small scale that will augment people’s income while giving them the pride that comes from making something. The scale of the enterprise will find its own level.

“One of the things that I like about what’s happening at the Athens Makerspace is that they are going to be using an Etsy store to help some of the people in their makerspace be able to sell products. That’s fantastic. It’s not their complete focus, but it’s part of it.”

In addition to the Athens, Nelsonville, Marietta and Somerset buildings, a new makerspace is now in Portsmouth. All have taken inspiration from the largest makerspace in the world, the 65,000-square-foot Idea Foundry in Columbus. While none of the more local installations will approach its size or scope, Simon said they may be just the right medicine for what ails our area.

“And I think part of the excitement is creating a sense of comfort – it’s comfortable for me to walk through the door,” she said. “If I’m a laid-off power-plant worker, and we have more of those than we do coal miners in the region now, and if I walk into a place where I see equipment and things that are familiar to me, I have more of a sense of power. I have found a community. It’s really about creating the next space.”