Guest Post: a Cross-Country Makerspace Road Trip
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Jesse Vincent and Kaia Dekker of Keyboardio are presently running a project called the Model 01, a hackable, ergonomic, heirloom-grade keyboard. But that's not all — in addition to managing this hugely successful project, they're also on a road trip across the United States, visiting makerspaces with the Model 1 so that people can try it out. When we heard about this month-long endeavor, we asked them to tell us more about the experience.
There's a lot of advice out there about how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. Approximately none of it recommends that you spend the month of the campaign crisscrossing America. But that's what we decided to do. Part of it was convenient logistics: we needed to get our Honda Civic from Somerville, MA, where it's been hanging out for the past year-and-a-half, to our new house in Oakland, CA.
The other part of it is that we have a product that you kind of have to touch to appreciate. The keyboard we're making doesn't look or feel like any other keyboard that's ever been made. The body of the keyboard is milled out of two blocks of maple and the keycaps are sculpted to guide your fingers to the right keys. To really understand it, you need to put your hands on it. That's not generally something that you can do with a hardware project on Kickstarter — the internet is amazing, but not that amazing (yet).
A couple months before we launched the campaign, we sent a note to our mailing list asking if anyone would like us to bring the Model 01 to a makerspace or hackerspace near them. Makerspaces are often a community's focal point for the sorts of people who are excited about a hackable keyboard. Not coincidentally, they usually have all the tools and materials someone would need to build their own keyboard from scratch. About 150 folks invited us to come to their towns. Eventually we figured out a route that would take us to nearly twenty makerspaces over the middle 26 days of the campaign.
Every morning, we get up, grab a quick breakfast and hit the road toward our next meetup. One of us drives and the other pops a Verizon MiFi on the dashboard, opens a laptop and starts responding to Kickstarter comments and backer messages. Sometime in the afternoon or early evening, we roll into town, find our way to the local makerspace, haul in our prototypes and parts, and get set up to let folks meet the Model 01. After a couple years working at home, getting to see folks' eyes light up as they put their hands on the Model 01 for the first time has been nothing short of amazing. But what's been really amazing has been getting tours of makerspaces across America.
So far, we've visited Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, MA; The Hacktory in Philadelphia, PA; Nova Labs in Reston, VA; ShopBot in Durham, NC; LVL1 in Louisville, KY; synHAK in Akron, OH; Maker Works in Ann Arbor, MI; Arch Reactor in St. Louis, MO; Dallas Makerspace in Dallas, TX; ATX Hackerspace in Austin, TX; and Quelab in Albuquerque, NM.
If you've never been to a makerspace, well, that's worth fixing. Every space is a cross between a social club and a workshop, though the amounts of each in a given space vary almost as much as the governance models. There are for-profit corporations with paid staff, great signage, formal classes and proper fire-suppression. There are anarchist collectives building pyrotechnic art in not-quite-legal warehouse spaces. And there's everything in between.
Touring this many makerspaces in this short a time, we've had a unique opportunity to get to see all sorts of makerspace best practices and a wide variety of absolutely brilliant creations.
At Nova Labs outside DC, they keep a few good cameras hanging on a hook by the door. The cameras are set up with WiFi cards to automatically post photographs to Flickr. Members are encouraged to take snapshots of their projects whenever they hit a milestone. That way, members always have good photo documentation when they're ready to write up their amazing creations. (It's also pretty good for luring new folks into the space.)
In Durham, we visited ShopBot Tools’ factory & headquarters. It's not strictly a makerspace, but their tools are a central feature in workshops and makerspaces around the world. The company makes a range of CNC machines that can turn a piece of wood or plastic into... just about anything. Factory tours are always amazing, and ShopBot’s was no exception. They do the electronics, metalwork, assembly, and shipping all in North Carolina. They actually use ShopBot machines to make many of the parts for new ShopBot machines.
LVL1 in Louisville was, by far, the trickiest space to find, but once inside, everything was astonishingly well signed and documented. Particular highlights of the tour include the couch suspended from the rafters, a gigantic laser cutter, a really well provisioned metal shop, and the "boneyard" — shelf after shelf of project supplies for members to have their way with.
Maker Works in Ann Arbor was a gorgeous space. Every tool and workspace had an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) binder that covered tool safety, usage and cleanup. They also had a "job board" full of work that members who have more time than money can do their membership fees. But what really blew us away was the dust collection system in the wood shop. Now, that may sound kind of weird. A dust collection system isn't a tool so much as a piece of necessary infrastructure. Woodwork generates a lot of sawdust. When you have a tiny little shop like ours, a single ShopVac attached to the tool you're currently using takes care of your sawdust. In a larger space, things quickly get out of hand without a custom-built industrial-grade vacuum system. The folks at Maker Works were quite proud of their dust collection system--and rightly so. We toured the space at the end of a long day of making and there was almost no sawdust to be seen anywhere in the shop. The overhead piping for the system was pretty cool looking, too.
In St Louis, things were somewhat quiet as folks had mostly already packed for the upcoming Kansas City Maker Faire. We did get to see one amazing work-in-progress last-minute hack for the Maker Faire: a twitterbot called @tweetmybot. Unlike most twitterbots which have a decidedly software-only flavor, this one’s powered by a Raspberry Pi and actually drives around in response to simple commands via Twitter at-message. When fully working, it sends back photos of what it sees after running your command.
The Dallas Makerspace had, by far, the best interior way-finding system. Colored stripes on the wall of the lobby were labeled with the names of spaces and workshops throughout the somewhat-maze-like 17,000 square feet of the makerspace. To get to the lecture-hall where our meetup was, you just followed the red stripe on the wall. Really simple. Really effective.
The Dallas Makerspace also had a team of people doing “citizen science," including a very cool integrated fish & plant indoor aquaponics system.
One cool thing we saw at Quelab was pre-printed tags for labeling things. Many makerspaces tend to have a chaotic mix of stuff around — projects in progress, abandoned projects, broken hardware for scrap, working hardware that you shouldn’t mess up too badly, etc. Often these get labeled with sticky notes. JT from Quelab told us this that they'd borrowed the system and the tag design from another makerspace (that we failed to write down and can't credit :/ ), but that they'd been evolving the tags to better fit how things work locally.
This is just a small taste of some of what we’ve seen over the past few weeks. We've been writing backer updates with pictures and a bit more detail on each space after every meetup. You can find them on our Kickstarter campaign page.
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