tulsafablab-20rFabLabTulsa is set up in a fair bit of retail space on South Lewis, a bit hard to spot at first with its sign bolted flat on its slanted façade, facing the street. Promptly at 3 on an off-Saturday, I’m greeted by their paid part-time electrical engineer, who promptly ferries the dozen or so rubberneckers through the various stations. Our host, one of FabLabTulsa’s master technicians and notable 3D printer aficionado, has at his home, a custom H-frame printer capable of doing nearly life-size statues in ABS. And naturally, the first thing you see at the space is a rotating-platform 3D scanner (custom built with a Kinect and motorized tracks) where you can pose for such a casting.

To your left at the entry, facing the street, is the big table, equally suited to potluck or group project. The Lab’s half-kitchen loaded with red plastic cups and coffee is a quick walk around the whiteboard, and the restrooms behind, in the corner. To your right at the entryway is a greeting desk, and then the main business, the design and machine shop!

tulsafablab-2We trace along the back wall, lined with well-defined workstations, each labelled by a CNCed hanging sign. There’s a small, precision machine mill, great for casting molds for plastic or silicone parts, or cutting circuit boards. There’s a 40-Watt laser cutter, which of course is in constant use, and then we pass through the airlock into the wood shop, complete with a band saw and a 1.2×2.4 meter ShopBot CNC. There’s also a decent set of hand tools, a drill press, and plenty of vacuums, brooms, and other dust removal equipment for cleaning up. Back out in the main space, we see the 3D Printing space, anchored by two MakerBot Replicators, mainly printing ABS today, and of course, all the fun things you can do with them, like Klein Bottles and the like in a dozen colours.

Thoughtfully included alongside the machining control computers, are dedicated design computers, which keeps the machines online and running G-Code, instead of being busied by users constantly tweaking models. SolidWorks has its own dedicated workstation, and also runs on a bank of design-dedicated laptops set up on an island in the centre of the workzone.

tulsafablab-8What makes it a FabLab, and not just a Makerspace, is an adherence to the tooling picked out by the MIT master fabbers. They all have the same CNC, and the same Laser Cutter, and the same Mill. Using the same types of tools in the same way, one gains the network effect of being able to develop a process, and then exactly recreate it at any other FabLab. Collectively, they create a mountain inside an isotechnological curve; you can set a new Thing on the peak and watch it snowball downhill, all over the world.

Still, in the US a FabLab has a tremendous propensity to be closed to the public. Call it a curse of academia: ideas spread like wildfire, but the execution is limited to whatever silo the grant-writer starts from. They get all this equipment, and then it sits in the corner of a Community College or Public School until the next 8am-4pm, 182 days a year. This makes it all the more special that FabLabTulsa is completely open, with more than 500 members. Funded mostly with foundation support, the space focuses on being an independent technology accelerator, home or cradle to many a startup, and being an educational resource on the frontier of this new technology.


Laptops are prepped for lab deployment

To this end, they have a mobile lab filled with tech goodies that gets carted off to local schools. Deployable with or without the van, are additional lab carts filled with laptops, topped with things like mini laser cutters or 3D Printers, and they’ll just be parked at the school for use, weeks or months on end. These rigs even have their own cellular routers, just in case the school network isn’t up to snuff getting printables to and from Thingiverse. FabLabTulsa’s remote units are in constant demand, but it shifts as new schools buy in and get their own computerized manufacturing systems. The viral effect of the FabLab rolls on – a job well done, I’d say!

There is another space in development, RawSpace Tulsa, working to spend city “Vision 2025” dollars on a place intended to be The Largest Makerspace [Arty pause] in the World! The plan is to renovate an abandoned factory with public dollars (providing a good use for part of an extended 0.6% city sales tax in the process), establish a semi-public NPO that operates the facility, then rent out sections of the floor of the giant facility by the square, kind of like the Million Dollar Homepage.

Now a global product! - Accelerated at FabLabTulsa

Now a global product! – Accelerated at FabLabTulsa

Ultimately, this new space would bring together businesspeople with varied skills, equipment, and goals, but able to share ideas and experience.  The folks behind this made a presentation to the city council recently – astoundingly, when warned at 10pm about the 10am meeting the next day, our multi-talented tour guide completed the design and multiple versions of 3D printing of both a problem (unreachable bolt) and a tool to solve it (a specially designed wrench). This was then ready in time to be printed by the RawSpacers right in front of the City Council, the stepper motors loudly singing in plastic, even as the Airport Authority came to ask for another $90 million.

Correctly spelled

Correctly spelled

Wacky hijinks have never been a stranger to Tulsa. I can’t end out my writeup without mentioning how I was regaled with the tales of locals and their interactions with Weird Al Yankovic, who filmed UHF in the city back in 1988. About two years ago, at the UHF 25th Anniversary, One FabLabber presented Al with a machined diorama of the Emo Phillips scene (the one where the shop teacher can neither identify nor use a table saw – gold!) Another FabLabber had the fun of being in high school at the same time the film was shot, and offered one or two stories of silliness from way back when.

From the reputation of most FabLabs, I was expecting something way more insular. Instead, I found a lively, active, welcoming workshop. I don’t know how else to sum this up; one could say I’m fablabbergasted.

MakeICT, Wichita’s Makerspace

makeict-4I attend a mid-November open makers night, and promptly set up my RepRap vaguely close to the rest of the 3D Printing. My Rube-Goldberg toolchain takes 90 minutes to set up, and my frame is out of alignment from being jostled too much on the road. What really does it all in is a WiFi crash; my printer halts immediately, though only the smell of something burning causes me to check on it. It is, in fact, the smell of burning coffee from the custom roaster another maker has set up, but my print head is also stalled, so good catch?

The network issue doesn’t take too long to resolve, but by then I’m knee-deep into being told all the details of the coffee project. I check in on the other 3D Printers; I don’t think anyone ends up making a complete print that night. The Ultimaker lost adhesion and only made a short piece of its intended bicycle model. A giant gear printing out on the Rostock just never quite takes, despite several tries. The laser is busier, to the amusement of its users. The Foam Cutter is much discussed, with the numerous tongue-and-groove sculptures set all about, but ultimately stays idle.

makeict-0I get a broader tour of the space, the metal shop has a brand-new TORMAC CNC, very nice; the welding tools include a dispenser full of Slim Jims and fruit snacks. The wood shop has a ShopBot CNC, 4×8, very decent size, with a big router as the cutting head, as well as a SawStop table saw, a slightly type that mangles itself in a slightly different way than the one I saw in Minneapolis.

About 30 or 40 people made it to the open house, though far fewer avail themselves of the fajita bar. There’s a definite social structure to navigate; it’s a challenging place to be an introvert. Fatefully, I manage to miss which ones, if any, were on the board of directors, which met shortly before the open house. I also miss the studio artist, that would have been a fascinating chat, I’m sure.

makeict-12As the people making things fade away to discussions, one member darts in and out, doing Uber runs between sips of coffee. A lot of chatter is dismissive of the smell of roasted coffee, disinterested in its tech or creativity, or perhaps, already sick of this shtick, guaranteed to return December 12 for a full-day class. Perhaps it will be better ventilated then?

The older folks are more ecumenical; one is torn between a passion for iron pouring and the need to go to the steampunk con, only on this weekend. This being Kansas, of course it is called the Emerald City Steampunk Expo. (Not to be confused with the Comicon in Seattle). Another member has decent expertise with electronics and a fair bit of medical insight as well. Still other older makers manage shop areas at the space, but also work at Wichita State, and have an early bedtime.

There is almost no beer; what little there was disappears with the early departures. No one is drinking pop; at 3 for a dollar it’s cheap, but there’s no change (tuck whole dollars only into an envelope). The Coffee Roasters are sipping, sampling, and poking fingers covered with wet, fresh-pressed coffee grounds, into their brew water, and pouring liquids between each other’s cups at temperatures perilously below 60 C. The drinking water supply here is a few litres left at the bottom of a stand-up water cooler, no cups resting next to it. The sole source of tap water is the bathroom sink; the kitchen might get one in the remodel.

makeict-23MakeICT has a particular kind of artistic flair not seen in the industrialist shops I’ve visited. Prior to getting its current glass studiofront on Douglas Avenue, it was based out of an artist collective. Its upgrade to its current digs, just this past April, was facilitated by the patronage of foundations that you’d see listed on the handbill for the orchestra concert. Mind you, there is not much of a sign of musical nexus – there is no fancy sound system, no one’s hands shot up when a member put out an emergency call for an iPod to test some charger gizmo. There’s no pop-up recording booth done in pink foam. For what it’s worth, there is an old electric organ sitting in the corner off in the games room. The art at MakeICT is mainly visual. There are paintings (one artist sells spacey prints for $10 a pop), crafts and clothing design, as the studio artist seems keen on, kitschy signage, and sculpture, mainly foam, though there is plenty of talk of PLA Lost Wax Casting. One wall is done up in empty frames, a tandem bike leaned against the wall, suggesting an unfinished, collaborative project. The all-glass storefront for the space is punctuated by dozens of Post-It Note pixels forming the name MakeICT.

You might expect some bohemian laxity in welcoming new participants, but in practical terms, it is not easy to get started here..

One of the main pages on the website invites you to visit events at the space. I try going to a laser cutting class. Turns out, you need to register. But also, to use the laser, you need to be a member. Now if this is a members-only event, why wasn’t this mentioned on the site? Looking again, carefully – on first inspection one may not note how the public events have PUBLIC typed in the event title. Just read between the lines about the others.

Nominally, membership is $25 a month. The website is set up to be very efficient in getting your cash fast. It’s vague on the important details of actually using this membership. Accessing the space depends on others being there already [if any are there at all today], or you getting your key. Keys are only handed out once a month, a big production where half of the board members show up to personally meet you, sign off, and then you physically grind a key out. If it happens to be the middle of the month when you start the process, you will be out at least $50 before you actually get to use the space, and woe betides you if you are otherwise engaged that lone and critical Monday night.

A system like this does not arise by accident, of course. Clearly, my problems are meant to be a feature, not a bug. There is more than one type of space; there exists a continuum of philosophies running from the wide-open, freewheeling Noisebridges, to the plainly functional co-working spaces for fully-vetted community members, like NYC Resistor. MakeICT doesn’t advertise it’s in the latter camp, but a few changes to its website would ease the confusion.

makeict-22MakeICT is a boon for the curious and creative, uniquely strong among spaces in food, drink, art, and sculpture. Floating on a wave of public attention and funding, the space has been making ambitious development goals. Buoyed by grants and a deep membership bench of about 150, it does not want for funds as much as it recently did, but it is still rather time-poor; even on a Friday night when its Uptown neighbourhood bustles, it lays empty and silent, awaiting a bit more volunteering to square away little things like how the welding area needs a curtain. But the artist spaces have been freshly cleaned, and two of the three are still waiting to be used.  There is plenty of room to grow.

Three w00ts for C3KC!

C3KC in Kansas City has a 3D Printer and electronics gear.  That’s about it for tooling, but they also do Ham Radio and Programming.  Definitely more in the development/design side.  So, no full “survey” per se for C3KC.

Since when is a reputable HackSpace run out of a DeVry? But believe it, it’s true.  A little bit of promo here and there, and super cheap rent can be had.  I caught up with one member outside of the school, during a promised Friday Meetup.  The building was locked and dim, but I hazard to wait around for the 7pm moment.  It would have ended there, but there were some big plans afoot to do a community event at a local high school, and C3KC’s leader was elsewhere, so it came down to just one person to extricate bins of soldering kits and jugs of Orange Juice from the shuttered building.

We wait for the security guard, a very talkative, friendly guy, for whom it’s a bit past his bedtime.  I snag as many photos as I can of the space for the blog, and help cart out some of the goods.  I happen to mention I’ll be in Shawnee for the British Faire.  Suddenly I’m also invited to the event, which is also out there in Johnson County, early the following morning.  Naturally, I get lost, but manage to saunter over at 10am, with the trays still full of breakfast confections and the jugs full of Orange Juice.  I take a danish-ish morsel and a few chunks of pineapple before the mass devouring ensues, some photos of cool things hanging from the ceiling.

About a dozen kids packed into the school’s robotics lab – ah, these kids these days with their iPads and their in-school robot labs – and the same trooper of a maker was there, showing the kids how to solder. First, a Colin Cunningham video about soldering, then a hands-on, step-by-step demonstration of the blinkenlichten kit, shaped like the Make Magazine robot, and a few too many soldering stations and a few too few wire clippers to go around.  One by one, they finish, no burns to worry about today, phew! – each proudly sporting red robot lapel pin with crazy blinking LED eyes.  The new generation of makers is soon ready to get going on the advanced soldering kits at full speed – launched by a modern school shop program and Cowtown Computer Congress Kansas City.  They’re such good sports, they even toss me a kit to throw together.

C3KC might not have the same size of membership, or the same level of financing or organization as the big space across town, but they’ve got enough to get by, and they’re using their powers for good.

MakeICT Survey

1500 East Douglas Ave
Wichita, Kansas 67214

Community Open House:    Every Other Monday 7pm [16 Nov 2015, 30 Nov 2015]
Regular Meetup 1:        DevICT, opposite Mondays 7pm [23 Nov 2015, 7 Dec 2015]

Member-owned, Volunteer-driven, No Paid Staff
Standard $25 per calendar month
No standard member open hours
Key process involves 4 board members – not for introverts

$5/mo Locker, School-type, cut your own key
Labelling system: Masking tape + sharpie

Hand Tools
Most Wood Tools
Basic CNC (Wood/Aluminium)
Nintendo Wii

Many tools are limited access by area leaders, and occasionally by tool owner.

3D Printers        (owner checkoff)
Advanced CNC    (owner checkoff)
Table Saw        (shop manager checkoff)
Laser Cutter        (class required)
Metal Shop        (class required)

Featured Equipment Spaces
Game and Music Lounge
Artist Spaces
Textile Space
Ceramics Lab
Electronics Lab
Wood Shop
Metal Shop

3D Printer (by mass)
Classes (Free or Paid, depending on instructor)
Pop (called pop) 3 for $1

By the numbers
Bathrooms    : 1 (!)
Kitchens    : Almost Full [no sink in kitchen- yet]
Largest 3DP    : Rostock Delta
ABS or PLA    : ABS
Largest Laser    : Epilog Rabbit
Largest CNC    : 4x8ftx1ft, router-based
Food Option    : Open Maker Night Fajita Bar!

Open House at MakeICT

Fun night Monday! Plus Fajitas. More to come.

Alternate Reality Time

What if the Dakotas had been partitioned like the Oregon Country?  Our flag might have ended up like this:


Minot, British Dacotah has a certain ring to it.

Perfectly anacronistic, of course. North Dakota’s Coat of Arms was designed by the US Army in the 1950s. I imagine a completely British-synthesized Version would have stoic animals floating over Prairie Rose bushes or some nonsense.

Here’s the SVG. CC-BY-SA

An interlude from Des Moines; Area515

p_area515-41It’s odd to find so many streets still torn up in early November. By now, as the snow fills ditches back in North Dakota, the road crews have just about given up. Iowa reminds me of home in a lot of ways, but things like this lie in the uncanny valley, close but so bizzare. They still call a can of Pepsi a “pop” — but not everyone is on board, and Area515 is long on empty cans waiting to be redeemed for Iowa nickels, and short on the repair work for their coin-op beverage dispenser. Hardly the only open handle, which for a makerspace is a good thing.

p_area515-21Area515 is super-legit. Their game, especially with electronics and mobile power, is good. One of the head honchos shows off a power scooter built around an old SUV alternator. The spare frame, not substantially bigger than what you might see in a Shriner’s parade, has only recently gotten a full-size set of handlebars. The throttle is also twitchy; it’s easy to throw yourself off of the thing. That’s the power of a 9kW engine fuelled by a battery not quite big enough to handle the current draw.

As I probe the length of the space, a non-descript storefront sandwiched between a low-rise apartment block and WHO-TV, the wonders only multiply for the Electrical Engineer: A kit-built laser, heavily modified, two Rostock Delta 3D Printers, a decent CNC, again heavily tweaked. Even a UV-Resin printer, with its tiny Eiffel Towers and Colosseums printed in the rear bathroom; tiny, pale orange, and translucent, they appear as if they could have been machined from bars of Dial soap.


12V Wall Warts by the bushel!

Here, the 12V Rails go to 57 Amps and beyond. There’s a huge stack of 12V Wall Warts just waiting to charge your new battery stack. Even the Porsches are All-Electric around here, all set to go to Warp 9 – for 60 kilometers. It’s filled with a bunch of LiFePO4 cells off EVTV.me, apparently the place to go to get all-you-can-eat deals on power-grade cells, at least until the Gigafactory starts churning out. Elon Musk, despite his flaws, is admired here as a leader and innovator, even as a marketer and venture capitalist.

Charge limiters on the cell itself? Don’t use ’em, they say, just drain them all to the knee of the voltage curve and charge until the weak cell can’t take it anymore, and lock it into your charge controller. Touchy work to set up a new pack, checking levels all the time, but Lithium is pretty forgiving, and having your own spot welder (handmade from an old transformer with a dangerous-looking business end) makes it trivial to make your $800 cell stack for $350.

Business has been brisk at Area515 since the Mini Maker Faire in September. They’re at about the 35 Member mark, and they’re not a shy bunch at all. Aside from the power contraptions guru, there’s the ag engineer who just toured six of San Francisco’s awesome hacklabs – that’s great because there’s a newbie from the Bay Area here tonight! Plus an expert on 3D Printers trying to make the Rostock even cheaper and easier to assemble. Now that’s a tall order, taller than the build cylinder in such a delta.

RS DesignSpark Class

RS DesignSpark Class

Interest is also keen on 3D Modelling. I stay an extra day to observe their class on RS DesignSpark, a half-decent free-to-play CAD suite. It works a lot like SolidWorks, that is to say, a group of average computer users learn it handily over the space of two three-hour classes. And the price is right. Not on the menu tonight, but when the subject of Electronics boards comes up, KiCad -free and open source- is the only way to fly!

If there’s any weak point, it might have to be the space itself. Conveniently almost-downtown, but there’s no street parking right in front; that’s an intersection. You can’t quite see it coming from the east; pizza delivery and emergency crews have been known to pass it straight by. And in the summer, or any day really, the sun pours in and the door needs to be open to equal things out. Sunshades are another one of those long-term projects. But it’s better than the old spot, they assure me. The network hookup is just the same, though.

Nortel is idle anyway.

Nortel is idle anyway.

DSL sucks in Des Moines, but Mediacom cable doesn’t cut nonprofits any deals, either. If you want fibre, well, it’s best to be the size of Microsoft or Facebook with their local server farms, or at least, the national insurance companies lining the streets of downtown. Once upon a time, harried couriers had to deliver the banks their data by tape and microfiche (one of said couriers still hacks at the space!) Now the network hub for those is the perhaps-inaccurately named Financial Center, illuminated in brilliant blue in the riverside skyline. So close to the makerspace, and yet priced so far.

The group’s favoured sit-down Asian food option, A Dong, recently burned down (Again?), but will be back! Des Moines has its choice of distinct Asian cuisines, each with its own community and history. Iowans recount the stories well about the waves of Vietnamese and Thai migration encouraged by successive governors (this week, the state is all abuzz about getting a Bosniak consulate, the result of another such wave), and these well-established communities do one better than a flat midwestern “Chinese” place. I’ll just have to come back to eat at the good one, apparently.

I’d say two days was definitely too brief a visit to Area515, so much of what they do lines up with what I’m interested in right now. And there’s even talking about getting a ham rig set up! Ah, why even leave?

Texty Weekend

Belated tidings! Things have hit a speedbump, quite literally, Road bandwidth has been a challenge, and I have quite a bit to share since Des Moines.

Since I’m stuck with just a handful of MBs until my cell plan rolls over, what I’ll do over the weekend is get what I have so far up in a few text posts, which will be updated with pictures later. Then I’ll be at MakeICT for Monday’s Open House, and maybe they’ll have some WiFi to spare.

Fun with Papercraft

papercraftmmI need something semi-professional to strap to my microphone to look like a real journalist. Why not papercraft it?

This specific design uses a 80mm pattern, just barely fitting into the margins on a US Letter Size sheet.
I really wanted something rectangular, but in principle you could make a square or any other shaped design in Inkscape in a reasonable amount of time.  Word on the street is there’s STL-to-Papercraft software too, if you prefer pulp to plastic for everything.

papercraftdsWhile I was building it, I fed the geometry into DesignSpark just to check on things.
It turns out that my first design, with tabs running all along the top side, probably wouldn’t have worked with my microphone’s shape.  Chalk it up to measure twice, cut once!

Now, just pop some graphics on there and print it out!  Decent cardstock, a colour printer and exacto knife should do the trick. Or I could laser it, I suppose, though lining things up will be tricky.

Here’s some PDFs if you want to fly with my base design.  I’d recommend a rubber band and glue to hold it all together: papercraft_files.zip


Twin Cities Maker

tcmhfTwin Cities Maker is a second-generation type of Maker Space. With the benefit of other people’s hindsight, they have avoided common pitfalls like opening before the membership can support it, or counting chickens with an excessive membership fee, or wringing hands about who is and isn’t making money at the hobby. They have respectably low, single-tier member pricing and 24/7 member access. In every respect, I found them to set the standard by which every other space will be judged.

As far as the people go, to a one they have a passion for the work. It’s definitely a jovial bunch. The group is so big, it has gotten cliquey to an extent, but everyone is reasonably friendly in that Minnesota way. Need an expert on welding, woodworking, metalworking, 3D Printing, Vending Machines, Sculture, Forging, Leatherworking? It’s a Hey there! and you’re off and running!

tcmdoorI had visited TC Maker twice before planning my journey, and each time found them to be charming, not merely from the people, but from the earnest utilitarianism of the shop. There is no sterile Apple Store façade to be maintained, just workspaces reasonably free of clutter and more than enough tooling and space to achieve almost anything. When I came by one time, they were working on a mechanical, flamethrowing dragon in the spacious metal shop. This month, there’s a TARDIS and a new type of modular sawhorse in the wood shop, down the way from a grease-caked baker’s oven being restored on the way to being traded for a better oven for use in a mobile restaurant. This aside from the perpetual whir of the laser cutter room, which has proven to be so popular it now costs a humble $5 per hour.

In theory, Wednesday night is the best time to work, or at least get project advice or help. Everyone’s around; the casual loungers of the entryway, catching a random 73 on the ham set or pushing a bit of paperwork in the office, grabbing a beverage from the pop machine (whose banner is yet to be converted from Pepsi to Slurm), the fabric and plastic artisans of the Arti-Factory, the wood chippers and rippers, the metal spinners and lathers and welders. And the rest are drinking beer and box wine in the Classroom, as the noobs get the 80-dollar-tour.

Saturday is the runner-up, everyone in for an afternoon of actually working on the things they chatted about on Wednesday. Other times have other crowds, the weekday morning greyhairs with their metal tooling and woodworking, the evening pipefitters doing yet more welding. And the laser pirates, burning and churning for eBay and profit, are in at all hours of the day and night.

All told, Twin Cities Maker is the right kind of mayhem. It’s not strongly focused on a particular technology, or social group. Its flock does not monolithically hang together, flying to a particular point, but as a whole each member supports a dynamic space whose only constant is the make. If you’re bored, the whats and hows will come easily if a hand is needed. If you’re stuck, there is the wisdom of experience to guide you. $55 is a hell of a deal for all the help I needed to get a working printer out of the pinball parts I started with.