December 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.
Meeting 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.
That’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.
The 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.
By 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”.
Back 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.
If 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.