Testing T-Mobile

p-coolWell, staying under 500MB of mobile data has done a lot of hobbling to what I can do blogwise, let alone wade into the tweeterverses.

So I went out and got this cheapo phone from T-Mobile Prepaid to put their $30 5GB/mo offering to the test.  Actually, the claim is “unlimited” data, throttled after 5GB, but come on, this is wireless, that’s lie number one in this industry.

Just messing around here and there so far, the data is not all that lickety-split.  Full bars of 4G, so so the thing claims (It’s a Coolpad Rogue), but the data only trickles in, even for T-Mobile internal sites.  Yeah, it’s Houston rush hour out there, but I just get this big whiff of throttle coming off my tethering test (I’m not even trying to actually download anything, it’s artificial pain at the level where it’s making me regret no-graphics pageloads).  I already know that T-Mobile’s DNS servers are twigged, they can’t even find my website!

I’m wary of John Legere’s feud with the EFF, among other things, but Project Fi requires a double-jointed Google handset well beyond my budget.  The other darling of the industry is ting.  If they were competing in 2016 and not 2012, I wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place!  Hey ting, I’ll come back to your data offerings when you have a 5GB GSM tier that costs $24.

5GB of data is not a huge number, but it’s enough to work with.  It’s enough to do what I need to do.  Plus, as an experiment, I might actually try out more of these crazy cell phone apps that people use to stay in touch.

10BitWorks in San Antonio

tenbits-0San Antonio de Bexar is the nexus of Texas history.  The original Texian Flag flew over the Alamo – not much more than “COME AND TAKE IT” scrawled on some linen.  The intersection of Roosevelt and McKinley sounds straight out of another era entirely, but you turn a different century walking into this white building with glass doors and white-painted pattern brick.  A modern phrase might be “Come and Make It”  – 10BitWorks’ motto.  This old Harley-Davidson chopper shop, from the bare concrete floor to the tar-paper roof, is bustling with the grits of the 21st Century, a digital factory replete with robotics and aquaculture expertise.

Walk in the door facing McKinley, and you’re already in the woodshop.  Though all the limited parking is on the far side of McKinley, it’s a bit of a short circuit to start out; the main entrance is still on Roosevelt, which opens directly to the 3D Printing and Laser area – where everyone hangs out. The tour commences from this door, running past the gallery, the storage space, roaming from the clean machines to the dusty woodshop, then into the classroom, which doubles as the arcade and kitchen.

tenbits-91Already, there’s great history here at 10BitWorks.  Aside from offering the first 3D-Printed Fiesta Medal to San Antonians, or assisting local groups that laser-print portraits on tortillas for February’s Luminaria, they once got an OLPC XO-1 from Josef Průša himself, following an education conference in town.  Starting as a club of just 8 members, 10Bit (always numeralled, never spelled) has grown to around 30, and there’s plenty of room still. The new President of 10BW is interested in cultivating a larger, more active membership, even pondering a mini-tour of Texas Makerspaces to figure on best practices.

Laser Cutting is always a big draw.  Right now 10BW is still trying to nail down just how they want to do the accounting.  Technically, the Laser Cutter is still more of a partnership between a few members.  $1.75 a minute is up there, but most spaces aren’t offering an 80W laser, either.  Eventually that gas tube is going to break, so the rate needs to be self-sustaining.  Finding that happy medium, that keeps it busy and paid for, is a challenge.

tenbits-44Growth is also part of the plan with the brand-new 150-gallon aquaculture system.  It’s stocked with culture medium, earthworms, and tilapia fingerlings, and is just about ready for a first crop of heritage vegetables.  Amazing what you can do with a little elbow grease, a pump, an aquarium heater, and 5000K LED lightbulbs!

There’s a few set days of tradition for the space, apart from the student robotics groups constantly darting in and out of the space’s classroom with half-built 3D printers or killbots:

tenbits-43Tuesday is the day for expert advice on 3D Printers.  Quite a few folks are working on a build or tweaks, most of them are cartesians based on “GRAMPS”, the first fully-functional model the space bootstrapped.  Someone’s next printer, plus or minus some refinements in Unigraphics, is coming out on a bed already, while one of those fancy “digital sundial” models is coming out on another unit.  The extruders must be pretty good here, I see a lot of ABS running with just a heated bed and no walls.  My rig struggles to keep up.  I’m also still using Painter’s tape on my bed; here the conventional way is a little hairspray on a PLA printbed, or a spritz of ABS “goop” made with strings of your filament and a little nail polish, to get a good level stick to the print bed.

tenbits-105tenbits-75Wednesday is the art day.  The big project is laser-cut jigsaw puzzles, which run into a few snags along the way.  On Saturday, an early batch caught fire on the 80W Rabbit.  Thankfully the worst of it tonight is that they smell a little, between the burnt fiberboard and cinder-edged photopaper.  The end result is a smart-looking 6 piece puzzle, enough to show off, maybe get someone interested in the technique, or at least admire the artwork.  The photos for the next batch pop out fast from 10BW’s HP OfficeJet Pro 8610, and don’t look half bad at all!   Another notable art piece is from last year’s President, an engineer and part-time artist, who has for the last few years mailed a Constructable Ornament as a Christmas Card, adorned with six self-made original paintings, printed into a flat that can be folded into a cube, taped down, and hung on the tree!  This year’s version has a handy folding 3D-printed plastic backing cube to make it nice and study.

tenbits-45Thursday is mechatronics night, where bit by bit, the space’s InMoov Android is being printed and put together.  It looks like a harlequin quilt of 1990s aspiration, rising out of the gallery table slowly, each piece a random colour.  Eventually the whole thing will stand and be motorized; as a demo, there’s a red finger printed out to greet guests at the entryway to the space, but it’s a bit wonky, albeit in a fun way, and hardly ever plugged in these days.  A few of the operational InMoov units are done up specifically in one colour, but why not do something that pops out?

tenbits-19Saturdays are the official Open House Day, and the members tend to get an early start, though nominally it begins at 1pm.  With all day to dedicate to the cause, you’ll find everything from DIY aluminum casting with lost PLA, bentonite-sand, and a wooden form box, to delicious frosted sugar cookies made with a 3D printed cookie cutter, with yet more cookie shapes coming down the pipeline for next week, along with general 3D printing and the occasional visitor stopping by to try out the laser.

tenbits-79Now, Sunday afternoons are never guaranteed, but around about 2pm, a few folks usually come to 10BitWorks to play tabletop games, mainly the latest in card and board games, though if need be, every kind of Settlers of Catan is ready to go on the corner shelf. In exchange for a few pretzels, I’m introduced to the shifty paranoia of Noir, the ridiculous contraptions of Steam Works, and the desperate frustration that is Shadow of the Elder Gods  The same crowd has been known to while away their Thursday nights at Alien Worlds up on San Pedro, kinda by the River City Donut shop.[Phonetically, 10Bit can sound a little like ‘Timbit’, which got really me pastry-hungry.]

San Antonio is, to put it lightly, not a bad place to eat.  A maelstrom of menu choices surround the space; the top of the list is Whataburger, located barely a block away (just watch out for cars speeding around the blind corner).  Another popular choice is Bill Miller BBQ, a bit farther down the way.  And there’s taco trucks everywhere!  Of course, I’m a sucker for nostalgia, so I make a special trip across town to the neon fifties of the In-N-Out Burger, the last one I’ll see on this trip after passing it up in Dallas and Austin.  I have friends in Vegas who still are shocked that they’d ever open a second distribution centre.  Ah, but this is getting a bit off the beat, now!  Basically, if you like robots, if you like laser cutting, if you like burgers, you’ll love 10BitWorks.

TechShop Austin-Round Rock

tsarr-1At a glance, it lives up to its reputation. It’s staffed by hipsterish folk and has everything you need to build stuff, and staff to assist. During the 2015 holidays memberships are discounted to $100 from $150 a month. For the most part, a sustainable membership fee for a space is something like half of this or less, but TechShop has that extra component of convenience, help and education that accounts for the gap.

I didn’t get too far past the lobby, but then, they hardly need introduction. TechShop isn’t exactly shy about telling you all about itself on the website. It’s also nothing like “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” either – the Detroit TechShop is legendary for its scale, whereas the Austin edition is large, but not totally ostentatious. This one is also attached to a Lowe’s in case you’ve run out of substrate.

tsarr-3A single class here can cost more than a month’s membership at a co-op space, but classes here are also expected to supply you with all your materials. The exhibits of featured inventions from TechShop members are self-aggrandizing and inspirational in equal measure, but I’d say its heart is more or less in the right place. You can grab a copy of the Austin Chronicle to keep up on the local arts scene. Yes, this is the high-maintenance version of a makerspace. Someone’s gotta pay for the help’s hairstyling.

tsarr-4Despite the sticker shock, it’s still cheaper than going to a tech school to build up your confidence on the machines. A decent match for a newbie who needs to learn the ropes, or for the time-pressed maker, who doesn’t like hauling miles back and forth to the hardware store, or guessing when a second set of hands might show up for the big projects.

ATX Hackerspace in Austin, Texas

picsatxhs-c-41It’s a slow Tuesday night in December when I visit the ATX Hackerspace.  Across town, MakeATX is packed away for the holidays, so this is the sum of the diehards in the Texan capital city. The guests bring a dash of flavour; one passerby had been through the Toronto spaces, and really just stopped by to get some nuts tightened on his Kawasaki as he keeps on keeping on from Los Angeles. So you can fix your vehicle here! Another newcomer, a bit of a body-modder, is looking carefully for any signs of madness that he found at his old space in Portland, whilst regaling the crew with talk of his time in Tucson. So there’s a biohacking community here!

picsatxhs-a-39That week’s other meetups (Linux Wednesdays, Microcontroller Mondays, etc) are about as slow, though not without a lively debate over the finer points of the cellular network. One thing’s for sure, it’s so much better in Europe. These guys aren’t shy about ordering from AliExpress, which still is a hair-raising experience for the uninitiated. A maze of odd international trade principles, and row after row of scummy operators, are involved in AliBaba, only most of which are cut out by AliExpress. The key to staying happy with the system is embracing the hassle of complaining when your order results in AliBaba’s not-atypical delay and inaccuracy. The bottom line here: 800 tiny stepper motors for 80 dollars – a deal that just might be worth chasing.

picsatxhs-b-1In my quick breeze-though of the workshop tooling, what pops out is the engine stand and engine lift – they’re serious about their car work here – and a massive 1.6×2.8 meter CNC mill, sized to work on “Russian” plywood boards, some of which have been turned into wavy topograms on display in the gallery up front. It’s the first space I’ve been to with co-working cubicles, about a dozen of them in a keyfobbed side room ready to go, for $250 on top of the $60 membership. Plus there’s a chemistry lab, complete with working fume hood!

picsatxhs-b-26You could get some definite mad science going on here – and what better for a logo than a tricked-out flying bat? Definitely the most oblong entry I have in my hacker heraldry collection so far, most of which confine themselves to squares or cogwheels. Bats are kind of a big deal around Austin, the Texas “Hill Country” being of Karst topography. Among other things, the ATX Bat adorns their fully-functional MAME arcade machine, which is right alongside a motion-control ride machine! This place is clearly happening – I’ll have to pay a visit again sometime, when I can sit down for the stories and really catch the spirit of the place.

Ig Electron, an interesting concept in education

ig-1Ig Electron has an ambitious concept: Online Learning on common Maker topics, while also offering in-person training.  TheLab.ms got a sneak preview at the December membership meeting, where we went through the basic design process, and got the wheels turning about all the dimensions of a modern engineering project. It’s just a taste of what 2016 may hold.

It’s early on for the brand, but the hope is folks will be interested in a personal touch, in the form of an intensive boot camp, where the head engineer personally gives you the kind of hands-on training you need to get up to speed on various makerverse topics, like coding, circuit design, and so forth, over a short span of time. No need to bring your own Arduino, all the equipment you need will be provided, so you can hit the ground running.

iglogo Speaking of the brand, Ig Electron has a pretty fancy, Star Trek meets The Smith Chart logo, a fine example of what three days of design work can get you on the Hacker Heraldry front. Mad props for that! I look forward to seeing the site take shape in the coming year.

University of Texas – Arlington FabLab

utafablab-10The drive from Plano to Arlington is a bit daunting – they don’t call it a Metroplex for nothing – it proves to be a round-trip voyage of about 110 miles, past the original Six Flags theme park and the giant AT&T Stadium, home of the 4-and-11 Dallas Cowboys. The University of Texas as Arlington is located just south of downtown, where free 2-hour parking isn’t so hard to find. Still, it is a bit of a hoof deep into campus, past the Engineering Quad and the maze of other buildings to the central Library, the home of the UTA FabLab. Like in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, it’s open to the public, though have your Driver’s Licence ready; the library makes you stop at a check-in desk.

The creative space is tucked into the southwest corner of the first floor, just off to the right of the entrance. A large wheeled whiteboard serves as the OPEN/CLOSED sign for the space. It’s a little bit before noon, well into the swing of things; the board’s OPEN side is invitingly facing your way, between a few scattered study desks, though beyond a certain point off to the left, there’s just bare tile floor. Today, the entire south side of the building past the FabLab is ripped apart and cordoned off with black plastic sheeting, clearly for some impending renovation. Nearly a dozen people buzz about the well-used facility, the printers chugging away, and the vinyl and laser cutters are seeing steady use as well.

Daylight streams in abundance through the south-facing windows; so many shop floors are enclosed, and wholly lit by fluorescent tubes. This is easily the brightest space I’ve yet seen. Clever stickers and galleries of past works abound. Machined designs of all types, from building models to functional object lifts, printed as a whole piece. You even have your choice of material to ape that famous Vapourwave album cover from Macintosh Plus, “Floral Shoppe” — available in your choice of rustic wood veneer or wispy traces in glass. Welcome to the future!

utafablab-45The equipment is all the standard FabLab fare, though they have a sewing machine as a bonus, plus a little extra in the way of 3D scanning; There’s a static unit suitable for small objects, or a handheld 3D Sense “wand” that can capture human sized objects – like, say, a bust! You have to stay pretty still, and the optical pickup doesn’t quite deal with glasses. But there it is, 15MB of me!

Turns out, it’s actually a very auspicious time to visit this lab – over the next few weeks, half of the Library’s first floor will be renovated into the Fab Lab Expansion – home to all the woodworking and metalworking equipment they don’t yet have. Along with this, a second laser cutter is going into the southwest corner, right next to the existing one! As the lab grows, they’re contemplating adding a membership fee, but they have a commitment to keeping the space open to the public – the exchange of ideas is important to the health of any creative space, after all.

The FabLab isn’t just for making cool doodads, though. There’s serious research going on here, too! My tour host has actually been working on a Master’s Degree and is now starting on a Ph.D, all deeply related to the FabLab and its manufacturing technology. Of course, when you write your thesis and go straight into your dissertation, it’s not sent straight out, it’s on hold pending the rest of the work. So you’ll have to come back in a couple years to get the full white paper on the UTA FabLab, but you only have to wait until February to check out all the cool new stuff!

TheLab.ms in Plano, TX

wfdseries2-9.featureMy time in Dallas was professionally productive, in no small measure due to my participation with TheLab.ms. The group caught my eye almost immediately when I set out; their focus on computer networks, in addition to the other trappings of the makerverse, is an interesting angle, and the group was certainly more intimate than the gigantic Dallas Makerspace in Carrollton. These are real nerds, to be sure; their logo is based on a glider pattern from The Game of Life. It’s an exciting time to stop by; the Hoverboard is a viable means of transportation here, and just weeks ago, several teams from the space participated in a massive Trebuchet competition in Plano, launching pumpkins and squids to improbable distances.

The genesis of TheLab.ms was in Meetups, many at the (sadly, defunct) Alan Wicker’s Bar in Plano. In August, TheLab officially moved into its space, sandwiched between three restaurants and a coffee bar in a strip mall. Inside, you’re greeted by a small room home to the space’s two identical MakerBot-clone 3D printers, dual-extruder units with acrylic cabinets that work well with ABS. The resident print czar has already retrofitted them with Raspberry Pis, webcams on $8 IKEA desk lamp arms to take full advantage of Octoprint. Calibration is almost there, with the first attempt to print an RPi case demonstrating that the printer is just a little bit off dimensionally (Getting the right model to print off of Thingiverse, that’s another story entirely!)

These units have a lot of flexibility; they can print two identical objects at once (if the print is thinner than the extruders are set apart), or layer two colours of plastic in a single build (like a VLCesque traffic cone), or the traditional pathway, where one material provides support whilst the other remains in the final product. It’s all customizable, whereas many dual-extruder printers only let you run the support material option. Another custom mod is the glass sheets covering the print stage; the units ship with polymer stages that feel like sheets of painter’s tape, which have great adhesion but typically last just 50 or so prints. The glass sheets are much more durable, even if shattering is a worry. Another advantage of moving to removable stages? No more poking at the bottom with a metal spatula to get your plastic, just pop your completed print in the freezer, it’ll detach in moments. Just ignore the popping sound the glass makes as it shrinks – sure, breakage might still be a worry with the cheapest window glass from the hardware store, but decently strong potash or borosilicate glass is certainly an option down the line, now that the concept is proven.

thelabms-one-25Past the printers is the doorway to the main hall, leading left to Classroom One, the main hangout for the coders and remote-workers, rigged with dual screens and dual cameras for teleconferencing and presentations, or head right to the Common room, host to the refrigerator, browning convection microwave, network equipment, soldering stations. This is the main space for member meetings, and there’s a comfy recliner sofa along with sets of deployable stacking chairs. Farther down the hall is Classroom Two, presently set up as a boardroom, and behind that, the storeroom that will eventually be a Recording Studio. At the end of the hall is a restroom, complementing another just off the Common room.

They’re still rounding the corner on infrastructure development; By mid-December, in addition to renovating and painting the entire place, they had succeeded in running cameras and Ethernet cable everywhere, with the help of spiffy 3D-Printed mounting clamps. Things like a laser and woodworking gear are planned for down the line; in the near-term, a second space for a “dirty” workshop for wood and metalworking, as their member base and interests expand. In the “clean” space the next item on the list is professional recording equipment, to get together a nice soundbooth for podcasting and more! Also, each classroom is getting a nice USB condenser mic hung from the ceiling, which will make for better conferencing and recording compared with the pickups on the cameras.

thelabms-one-10The membership consists of a plurality of web designers, with a smattering of hardware and network engineers, plus bloggers and other technical types. During my visit, another passing blogger hangs a television on the wall, and gives a half-decent talk to the members; more on him soon. The network engineers are very interested in getting the network hyper-secure, RADIUS on the WiFi and everything, but are also among the most busy of the members, so the work is taking a little longer than planned. I get seconded to terminate a dozen or so network ports they’re still deploying to the rooms. When I plugged them into the router, they “worked” electrically, but data was blocked by router configuration. Such is the nature of Infosec. Another frustration they have is being surrounded by optical fibre, yet their building didn’t have it put in. There are always ways to jumper bandwidth over a modest distance – though for now, a business-class Cable Modem will do.

Food of choice here? Marinara Pizza next door – amazingly good, New York Style, $5 for a drink and a slice. TheLab’s fridge is filled with 50-cent Soda, so it seems I have managed to cross that line, though by all accounts this may be partially due to the place being full of northern ex-pats. This is also a beer-drinking club! The fridge is usually full of a serviceable microbrew, and every month, there’s a brewmaster meetup, you can even rent $30 worth of equipment if you don’t have it, to enjoy 5 gallons of home-grown beer.

wfdseries2-3.jpgtlThe newest and coolest tradition is WoFLFri (Work From the Lab Fridays) – an opportunity for work-from-home types to get-it-done at TheLab for a nice change of pace and lunch at Plano’s dizzying array of mealtime choices. And naturally, there are the monthly Open Houses, on the Second Saturday of the month. Going into Year Two at their own space, TheLab is starting to save up a few nickels to think about getting shop equipment – new members are coming in at $30 a month, still totally reasonable as far as spaces go.

TheLab has yet more ambitious ideas, as far-flung as Optical Networking and Costa Rica. It isn’t hard to stay in touch with the group, in addition to the standby Meetup.com events page, their website is going through a redesign soon, and they have both IRC and SLACK! I did make a donation as a member for the month of December, and the crew was very excited to host me. In addition to providing me one of their old-school Conceptual Intercourse T-Shirts, TheLab let me hold onto one of their Red RFID keyfobs – one of the first issued, as it happens – and their first dual-extruded kickstand-key, suitable for propping up non-phablet sized phones for easy video watching! I’ll be sure to put it to good use on my next anime night.

Rose State College Fab Lab

okc-66On Tuesday, the sun began to shine again over a rain-soaked Oklahoma City, just the thing to bring out the bright colours of the Rose State College Health and Environmental Sciences Building.  Its blue and gold veneer faces Interstate 40 just off Tinker Air Force Base.  A column past the grand carport holds up a glowing marquee inviting passersby to register for Spring Classes at this “military friendly” community college.

okc-89Veering off I-40 presciently before this display, or perhaps backtracking circuitously from Southeast 15th Street, where Google and the campus newspaper say Rose State is, one may find this building’s parking lot, sunk into the ground just out of sight from the cross street.  You’ll have to drive through a couple other lots to find the large banner strung across the rear entrance of “HES” announcing the location of the FAB LAB at Rose State College.  Entering in the automatic double-doors, you find the foundry just to the left, announced by bright acrylic panels stuck to the wall, its double doors angled to face both the entryway and the passing hall.  The computer lab ahead is also part of the space and the restrooms are just to the left down the hall.

okc-5As soon as you enter, you see the entire World to your left, brought here via webcam and a big-screen TV.  (Europe isn’t awake right now.)  You can pantomime, draw, or fiddle with the remote until the microphone works, and trade questions with the other FabLabs – “Do you speak Portuguese?”   Moving clockwise,  the Laser Cutter, the Mill, the Moulding station, the vinyl cutter, the T-Shirt press, the Makerbots, and the in-house design lab.  At each step, my host shares insights into how the membership has been uses each to benefit students and the community.

okc-46For laser-cutting, the materials of choice here are cardboard – in vast supply, donated from a restaurant – and acrylic, which holds a sharp edge without mess or fumes.  Various cardboard structures are placed upon the space’s Christmas Tree, topped with a star-like ball made of 30 well-styled sigmoid curves.  Tour groups of schoolkids get to build their own papercraft butterflies and pterodactyls, just like the ones flying under the tile ceiling.  Starting with the files from Thingiverse, taking them through 1-2-3D Make, and finishing with laser-cutting and assembly.

okc-18Another cornerstone of the lab’s toolbox is cast moulding, the simple joy of being able to copy objects!  Imagine having a precious family heirloom, like Grandma’s ceramic turtle.  A layer of silicone, a layer of rubber, then set in some liquid plastic, and now all the aunts have a copy!  Or cross the streams – combine a lasercut acrylic or 3D printed master, and cast as many decorative chain links or Commander Shepard Paragon Points as you like, no need to do them one at a time on the slower machines.

okc-27Of course, the 3D Printer can build parts that cannot otherwise be cast or cut – for example, the NASA socket wrench recently designed to replace a part on the International Space Station!  Not satisfied with bland squares and hexes inside these 3D parts, the lab has a certain fondness for changing their infill pattern.  One build is filled with tessellated cats, another with sharks!  It’s showy – when you print in an opaque plastic, you’ll only see the pattern until it’s sealed off.  But who needs practicality when you have fun?

When it comes to building or refining concepts, the staff is very eager to assist area makers; Community entrepreneurs have prototyped a few inventions at the space, and there is also a fair bit of academic interest in the facility, especially from a medical perspective (handy being in a health building!).  Along that line, it’s being used to build prosthetic arms and there’s an edgy project to model tumours inside brain tissue, there’s all those sticking points with data ethics and privacy of MRI scans.  More practical is the service the FabLab provides the local facilities staff, replicating hard-to-find or out-of-production replacement parts, things like window clips or ceiling light mounts.  And as a bit of fun, the lab has made Oscar-like statuettes for awards events, it is Oscar Rose State College, after all!

okc-31They feed the MakerBots with PLA and the uPrint with Stratasys ABS and support material.  in the eternal back-and-forth between Painter’s Tape and Kapton, there is no contest here.  50mm rolls of Blue Painters’ Tape does it all!  Rolls of it sit everywhere in the facility.  Use it on the 3D Printers for a stick-free build, use it to cover the seam of a casting, and naturally you can even use it as tape!  They try to keep food out of the lab, it’s not exactly the sort of place tor heavy collaboration over lunch or dinner.  Still, every now and again, the go-to crowdpleaser is Hot-and-Ready Little Caesar’s Pizza, fetched as carryout from the nearby location.

There’s nothing in the way of woodworking, though there are other campus shop spaces where that’s possible.  This Lab is in a Health Science / Environmental Science building, and a bunch of sawdust everywhere would be hard to manage.  The space is safer and more accessible with a clean room design.

okc-43In Tulsa, I had mentioned that FabLabs are often limited in their reach.  Yet here is an academic institution getting it right, in my book, by being open to the community as a whole, and certainly not shy of doing a tour on short notice.  They’re working on getting the space integrated into more of the engineering and technology coursework, to help familiarize people with what they can do here, and get more Rose State students excited and invested into the space.  It’s definitely worth the hike from the middle of campus, or from anywhere in Central Oklahoma!

OKC’s ProtoTek

prototek-29December has dawned in Oklahoma City, it’s 7pm and the trendy Midtown neighbourhood is lightly abuzz with holiday shoppers filtering between geodesic domes of seasonal fare. The domes are white-strutted, sized between jungle gym and toolshed, just about what you’d want for a pop-up stall. Some have clear panelling, you can see the tinkling and faux-fire lights, holly, and pine wreathes within. Others are covered in buff vinyl, their yuletide offerings a mystery as I walk down Northwest Tenth Street.

A pile of pickup trucks surround two sides of a uniformly beige building. Two steel columns come down from a high, flat roof to an island, cutting an accessway off from the street. Two giant garage doors facing this drive give the space every outward appearance of being a former service station. In the bay window facing the end of the turnaround, an LED matrix is hung, blaring makership to the otherwise unknowing external surface. The brasshandled door, guarded by a green loop of circuitry, says “ProtoTek” across the window. The line of grey vinyl-on-particle-board tables just past the threshold are lined with members, each facing into their respective laptops. I try the door; it’s not open house night, so the fob loop frowns red, and it stays put. My knock causes a minor shock, but presently, the head honcho comes to greet me.

prototek-0Meeting rooms lay deep off ahead and to the left. The electronics workshop is in the corner, sandwiched between an office and a photography studio. The right wall is covered with a huge eight-segment projection HDTV, like you might expect from NASA Mission Control. As a backup, they still have a decent projector and a massive screen ready to be pulled down for the odd presentation or pizza party.

prototek-6That’s just the lobby! My vision of this fairly new space, ProtoTek’s second and current home, continues into the cavernous shop floor, ready with a modest amount of donated machinery. At a glance, it looks bigger than The Hack Factory, and certainly more open. All that’s being built at this moment is some tabletops, just being sanded and stained, nothing that would mandate safety goggles just yet. Brand new to the space is the TIG Welder, and a mighty industrial unit it is. Weld cables are strewn about the floor, someone must be half-done running it through the paces. Despite being offered apologies for the mess, to my eye the floor is empty and clean, for a Makerspace anyway.

prototek-8The well-loved machines have a certain appeal, one might even say a dieselpunk quality. Each mill and drill was donated, and generally speaking, older than you’d find in a factory setting. It’s all sui generis, no cookie-cutter FabLab template applies; this is a plus in my book, the more DIY you are, the better. They have a secondhand metalworking CNC with integrated bubble-button keypad and CRT display, and an in-progress custom woodworking CNC, which works fine but the finishing touch will be rigging it into a handsome blue enclosure, scavenged from some inoperative equipment.

prototek-17By this point I’m facing the inside of those giant bay doors, and lo and behold, they still have extra panels to match the Mission Control screen, and there’s two big robot arms, only one of which has been gotten to dance around (the other’s ROM leaked out, meaning the thing will likely need to be tuned from the ground up). The orange one is gigantic, taller than me, and it must tilt scales north of a tonne; yet its balance is such that it can be turned and spun by hand, if necessary. As a last curiousity, a dead tree is hung lengthwise across the ceiling, part of a member’s sculpture set (the rest of it isn’t immediately around).

The garage doors beg the question – Do people work on cars in here? Sadly not. Once this building served as the automotive lab for a high-powered lawyer, expert in suing the car companies over manufacturing defects. Buried somewhere in the back, there’s still a pre-safety era car lift, without any secondary stop or lock system, sure to mangle limbs if put too hastily back into service. If it were fixed or removed, and finagling were approved in a later lease, only then might a grease monkey have a chance to bring in “MAH TRUQ”.

prototek-27Back in the lobby, my brief foray into the electronics laboratory gets me caught on to the new PIC programmer soon to get installed; Arduino is nice, but to the coders of ProtoTek it’s just a starter set. Given the perpetually just-out-of-reach price of FPGAs, Microchip-brand MCUs are a reasonably sophisticated next step. Yet my time is cut short by the discovery that the building is leaking, the rainfall patterns having been changed recently with the new development built next door. They’re hardly strangers to of hydrological issues here. At one point, something like 900 tons of water – “TWO MILLION pounds!!” was sitting atop the flat-roofed structure; clogged gutters had caused the meter-high lip of the flat roof to get more than half full. As a result, the gutters now get cleaned out periodically by the landlord. It’s reassuring, given the bland or too-hands-off landowners I’ve heard about so far.

prototek-18If I were to sum up the space, well it’s the kind where everyone has a job, a truck, and a laptop. My stop is all too brief to be treated to the full spirit, but the little things assure me, this is still my kind of place. It comes as a bit of a surprise to me that ProtoTek is actually a business, as its rates are in line with community-owned spaces, and the doors are gladly open to monthly visits from a wall-filling list of learn-to-code focus groups. So I have to doubly admire the ethos, the way they look at the maker movement, right down to the phraseology. My guide to this space is a self-described “smash-it-with-a-hammer” maker. I’m more of a “blinky lights” type.

FabLabTulsa!

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.

tulsafablab-39

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.