I got to see where they make planes and boats in Mobile, a couple fun things in Pensacola, and I managed to stop in Tallahassee to pay a little homage to Dr. Paul Dirac.
Gainesville was a great stop, too. Skillhouse is a great makerspace, they aren’t shy of giving first-time visitors computer help, for one. Tuesday night open houses can go super late, so it’s handy they have such a great break room! Of what I saw, they’re more of a coding/electronics type of group, but to be fair, I only saw their “clean” space, in a downtown stripmall basement — the group also runs a woodworking shed across town. The projects folks brought in ranged from an automatic plant waterer, to a bike rigged up to float a ping-pong ball in a tube.
Gainesville has an “innovation corridor” that runs from the University of Florida campus through downtown. One of these startups is a place called Fractureme, a service where they turn a piece of glass into a Kodakchrome piece of art. No need to frame – the back is foam-padded with cutouts, ready to hang on the wall! They come in padded mailers, and naturally they do replace the rare one the breaks.
At 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.
A 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.
Despite 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.
It’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!
That 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.
In 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!
You 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.