My 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.
Past 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.
The 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.
The 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.