The tradeoffs of Makerspaces

June 20, 2016 OpenSystems Media

As a MakerPro, you may have a “makerspace” or “hackerspace” in your area. These take many forms, sometimes as a dedicated building, and at other times as an informal gathering of like-minded individuals, dedicated to making things.

If there’s a dedicated space with tools and a workshop, one of the most obvious benefits is access to tools that you normally couldn’t reasonably obtain. Although rates and facilities certainly vary, near my home is Tampa Hackerspace, where for $50 per month, you can have access to some great tools, including a laser cutter, CNC mill, CNC routers, and, especially important here, air conditioning.

As a serious hobbyist and sometimes MakerPro, I have much of this equipment in my garage. The quality of my tools, however, versus that space has is pretty different, and definitely not as good. This is due to many people pooling their resources, both financially and time-wise, to find equipment at a reasonable (or perhaps even donated) price. Also, most of my equipment resides in a hot garage. This is uncomfortable for me, and likely bad for the machinery as well.

As important as good tools are, I’ve found that the people at the Tampa Hackerspace are extremely friendly and actually credit the socialization aspect as the main benefit to membership. Though I’m not yet a member, after having visited a few times, I’ve met several people that are very interesting. Being a MakerPro that usually works alone, I love it when I can find like-minded people to talk to.

From a business perspective, however, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people that might have somewhat different skills than yours, and that you can bounce ideas off. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, someone from another background might have a ready-made solution.

With all the benefits to this type of arrangement, there are of course a few drawbacks. First, convenience can play a role. In my case, Tampa Hackerspace is about a 30-minute drive in good traffic, which is fine if you’ve got several hours of work to do, but not great if you want to make a single cut on a milling machine.

Second, the spirit of this type of place is generally for experimentation and socializing. If you want to start production of your new widget, it’s generally frowned upon to occupy a piece of equipment to turn out 1000 units of your new device. Spaces certainly vary, but you must be considerate of others in a way that you wouldn’t have to if you owned the equipment. In many ways, it’s like a gym membership; the equipment selection is generally much better, but it’s not usually a good idea to occupy a popular machine for hours on end.

If you’re going to instead invest in some of your own equipment, here’s a brief overview of some of the tools you might be interested in. Or you can always ask around at your local makerspace. I’m sure they’d be more than willing to give advice, or perhaps even tips on where to buy or trade for it.

Jeremy S. Cook is a freelance tech journalist and engineering consultant with over 10 years of factory automation experience. An avid maker and experimenter, you can follow his exploits on Twitter, @JeremySCook.

Jeremy Cook, Engineering Consultant
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