Tech Valley Center of Gravity Helped Turn the City Around

Q Ribbon Cutting FlyerLast week we got an invitation in the Hackaday tip line to attend the grand opening of a hackerspace in Troy, New York. Styling itself the Tech Valley Center of Gravity, the group seemed intriguing – a combination of makerspace and business incubator. But what was this about a grand opening? Hackerspaces don’t open – they just occupy a found space and grow by accretion until they reach a critical mass of equipment and awesomeness. I decided I needed to see this for myself, and being only a two-hour drive from my home, I headed off with my kids in tow and a small pile of Hackaday swag to see what a ribbon cutting for a hackerspace would be like. Plus I absolutely had to find out what in the world a “Quackenbush Building” was.

I was not disappointed. The Center of Gravity is a really special group of folks with an incredible vision of what it means to be hackers. Hackerspaces make a lot of things – great projects and gadgetry, plus sawdust, metal chips, and the occasional puff of Magic Blue Smoke. The Center of Gravity makes all of that, but it also makes entrepreneurs, businesses, and actual products. And it can reasonably claim to have a hand in community renewal.

The Quackenbush

Source: All Over Albany
The Quackenbush Building
I have to admit my first impression of the event was a little confused. There was a huge crowd stuffed into the high-ceilinged first floor of an old building taking up most of a city block. There were a few 3D printers set up on tables, and groups of people demonstrating cool stuff – my son was especially keen to try the Airsoft rifle interface to Counterstrike. But the whole thing had a decidedly science fair atmosphere to it, with obvious civilians mixing and mingling with the black t-shirted hackers. There were also quite a few folks in business attire, plus white-shirted wait staff circulating with appetizers and drinks. But where was the machine shop? The laser cutters? The electronics benches and oscilloscopes and function generators? Where were the projects in various states of assembly? Had I driven all this way just to see a community outreach event?

Disappointed, I headed down the stairs to the basement, which was mercifully cooler than the first floor. Ah, ha! Here were the shops – huge and brand new, with separate areas for woodwork and metalwork. And here I met [Bob Bownes], vice president of CoG, serial entrepreneur, and the fellow who invited me. And this is where I finally learned the full story of what was going on.

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The CoG woodshop – still has that new hackerspace smell.

The ribbon cutting that was going on upstairs – the ribbon being a copper braid and the scissors being a MIG welder – was the official start of the CoG’s residency in its new space in the renovated Quackenbush Building. Built in the 1850s, it was home to the Quackenbush Department Store until the 1930s, when it switched hands to another chain. It finally became a Rite Aid pharmacy which, in a sign of the hard times Troy would fall upon, closed in the early 2000s. The beautiful old building was purchased by a local developer, renovated with the help of various state grants, and its 48,000 square feet were turned over to the CoG group, who could now move out of their cramped and confining home in the bottom of a parking garage that was once a McDonald’s and an off-track betting parlor.

Making Businesses

It wasn’t just good fortune that lead to the CoG being able to expand so dramatically. As [Bob] explained, the CoG had been designed from the ground up to be a business incubator as well as a hackerspace. If you have an idea, you can turn it into a product in the CoG hackerspace, then turn the product into a business in the incubator. The upper two floors of the Quackenbush are devoted to the incubator, which provides fledgling companies with access to administrative functions, provides conference and office space, and helps get businesses off the ground.

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The old CoG, in a former McDonald’s.

One such business is Vital Vio, a maker of visible light disinfection fixtures. Vital Vio got its start in the aforementioned former McDonald’s, and will take advantage of the 3,000 square foot light manufacturing swing space in the basement of the Quackenbush to ramp up its production. The goal is to have Vital Vio and the companies that will no doubt follow it move on to space of their own, at which point the next company will take over the swing space for their first manufacturing operation – hack, rinse, repeat. With quite a few businesses already in the incubator stage, it should be exciting to watch what comes out of the CoG over the next few years.

Making Community

I had been to Troy a few times back in the ’80s and ’90s, and I wasn’t impressed. It always seemed seedy and run down to me, like so many towns and cities in the northeast US that had their manufacturing hearts ripped out of them in the 1970s. But the Troy we saw on Wednesday was a totally different place – vital and happening, with bistros and bakeries and funky public spaces. [Bob] explained that CoG had plenty to do with that – at least six new companies had relocated to the area around the Quackenbush specifically because of CoG. And it’s hoped that the businesses that spin off the incubator will choose to stay close to the nest, which will attract more businesses and more people to the area. That’s quite a change from the point where even a McDonald’s and an off-track betting parlor are no longer viable.

My trip to the Tech Valley Center of Gravity was not your typical hackerspace tour, but the CoG is not your typical hackerspace. There’s a lot to be said for the vision that created this place, and the model they’ve adopted for churning out businesses really seems to be working. Almost the entire incubator space is spoken for already, so there are plenty of companies waiting to be born there. That’s not to say that the average hacker who just wants a place to play won’t feel at home in the CoG – there’s plenty of room for them too, and the CoG even welcomes families with special memberships and STEM outreach programs. But if you have the germ of an idea, it can go from product to business with the help of a place like this, and that’s a pretty cool idea.

My thanks to [Bob], [Matt] and [Tait] for taking so much time out of their celebration to show us around. I hope we can visit again once everything is moved and you’re settled into your awesome new home.

The Best of Boston Hackers at Artisan’s Asylum

We were in Boston last week and Artistan’s Asylum welcomed us in to host a Hackaday Meetup. We usually pack the place when the Hackaday community turns out, but this was exceptional. This hackerspace has a sizeable open area that I’m told fits triple-digits and we were using all of it. In addition to food and beverage (courtesy of our parent company Supplyframe who also make trips like this one a possibility), we had lighting talks for people to show off their projects. One of the hits was a functional hoverboard shown above, but there were dozens of others.

Here is the quick gallery of images (from our Hackaday.io event page) to give you an overview. After the break you’ll find dozens more highlighting the builds which were being shown off.

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Dropping by the MIT Electronics Research Society

We’re in Boston this week and my first stop was at MITERS last night. This is the MIT Electronics Research Society, which started as a way to provide free access to computers for all students. Since those humble beginnings the organization has grown to include a slew of fabrication and test hardware, as well as a vibrant community that makes the group a great place to hang out.

Walking into the building you’re greeted with double doors strewn with interesting electronics and many examples of fabrication in the form of the word MITERS. The group, which is pushing 60-years of existence, feels immediately like a hackerspace where creativity and anarchy duke it out in a wild dance of experimentation. On this particular Wednesday evening we encountered a room of about 10 people working feverishly to fabricate electric racers for the PRS racing circuit in Detroit this Saturday.

Like a hackerspace, MITERS is completely member (read: student) run. There is a board that helps keep things on the rails. There is no membership fee; funding for the organization is sourced from Swapfest, a weekly flea market during the summer.

There is a strong slant toward machine shop at this hackerspace. In addition to a respectable Bridgeport CNC Mill, the machine tools and hand tools provide for almost all your fabrication needs.

What can be built in this space? How about a unibalancer? This is a single-wheeled, human-ridable vehicle that has a 7-mile cruise radius between charges. For me the most interesting feature is the deadman’s switch. You know those black rubber strips on public buses that you press for the next stop? This unibalancer has one that you need to stand on to make it go.

The hackers at MITERS excel when it comes to electric vehicles and this time of year that means the Power (Wheels) Racing Series. There are restrictions on size, and power output so the teams squeeze every bit that they can. For me, the most interesting build is based off of a pair of Ryobi electric chainsaws. The 40V batteries for these are themselves quite formidable but not used at all in the build. The team has reverse-engineered the driver circuits and written their own firmware for the STM8 microcontrollers on the boards. The chainsaws use chains to drive the two rear wheels. The entire system is monitored with XBEE-based wireless data which is displayed on a tablet.

This isn’t the only PRS build. The MITERS plan to take three different vehicles with them this weekend. The one they can’t bring is the huge electric shopping cart (with mandatory wheelie bar) which hangs from the ceiling of the space.

In addition to the formidable fabrication projects, there are a multitude of electronic projects to be seen. There is a musical tesla coil which is the best I’ve ever heard. It could easily be mistaken as a proper speaker. If you need more bass there’s a massive ceiling-mounted sub-woofer for that. And if you want a more formidable tesla coil, the parts are there.

Look hard enough and you’ll even find battle robots. This one had diamond plate that spins with a variety of nasty accoutrements intended for maximum damage of its foe. On the underside you’ll see a brushless motor used the opposite of how you might think. The shaft is attached to the locomotion frame of the bot. The underside of the spinning diamond plate has a ring of antistatic mat against which this brushless motor body spins.

Thanks to the MITERS for welcoming us in. It was a blast seeing all of the projects they’re working on!

Meetup at Artisan’s Asylum Tonight

If you’re in the Boston area, head on over to Artisan’s Asylum tonight starting at 6. They were gracious enough to open their doors for a Hackaday Meetup. Bring some hardware to show off if you can, if you can’t that’s fine as well. We’ll have a few lightning talks, some social time, and maybe an afterbar!

To wrap things up, we have covered a few projects from MITERS already, like this Power Wheels Racing build, and an electric go kart done the right way. Now that we’ve met them in person we’ll be on the lookout for a lot more awesome hacks from them.

[Thanks John for suggesting we stop by!]

Become a Mad Scientist, Build A Power Distribution Panel

One practical use of large switches and indicator lamps is to make a power distribution panel which can be useful when you want to control and monitor the power consumption of numerous devices such as your electronics work bench or amateur radio station. Old-school in appearance and using military surplus electronics, this power distribution panel allows for control of outlet on back. Did I mention I built it when I was 16?

Building it was easy, 120 VAC line enters through a main breaker. It is fed through an AC amp meter (with built-in shunt) then to a line filter. From the line filter it goes to a line voltage meter and filament transformer to power the indicator lamps. This AC line is then bussed out to the circuit breakers. Each breaker controls one outlet on the rear panel. As devices are switched on or off the current draw can be measured. This is well demonstrated in the video overview found after the break.

Be creative. Use military surplus switches, indicators, and other unique looking hardware. Customize to give your preferred mad scientist look while also providing valuable functionality.

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FREE 3D Printing in New York?

Looking to prototype some of your designs for the Hackaday Prize? Miss the Shapeways Gift Card Giveaway we did? Well if you happen to live in NYC, [John Tirelli] just wrote in to tell us about a FREE 3D printing lab!

That’s right — free. They don’t even charge for materials.

And we aren’t talking about a bunch of community rickety RepRaps falling apart in someone’s college dorm, nope, this place has CAD workstations with SolidWorks licenses, industrial Stratasys printers (Fortus 250mic, SST 1200 es, and a uPrint SE Plus) — not to mention a Roland LPX-1200 DS 3D laser scanner! Oh, and they’re getting a Fortus 400 and Connex 3 Objet soon!

It’s all thanks to a grant for Haverstraw Rockland Community College, which allowed them to open up this Smart Lab.

RCC’s 3D Printing Smart Lab offers manufacturers a proof-of-concept center where they can evaluate, customize, and expedite prototypes in a sandbox environment. The Smart Lab’s services are available to New York companies free of charge. Assistance is provided by RCC staff and CAD (Computer Assisted Design) students.

How awesome is that? Sounds like you do have to be a New York Company… but you filed that LLC paperwork, right?

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Rise of Hardware: A PCH Hackathon

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of helping out at the KW Hackathon in Waterloo, Ontario, sponsored by PCH Hardware, who hosts hackathons and meetups around the world to help inspire invention and entrepreneurship. This was the sixth hardware based hackathon they have hosted.

When they host a hackathon, they gather local sponsors and provide the tools and resources for the entrants to actually develop a working prototype in less than 54 hours, that they then can pitch to a panel of judges to win some awesome prizes. Did we mention it’s free to register? The next one is in London, England.

Personally, I provided some mentorship in product design and development, but more importantly, I opened up the use of my giant laser cutter to help the teams create real prototypes, and learn more about rapid prototyping using a laser cutter. Everyone wanted to 3D print their prototypes at first — but there was a limited number of printers available, and long wait times. We introduced them to sites like www.makercase.com, a site that will generate laser cutter plans for enclosures that you specify the dimensions of, and of course, the ability to search google for “laser cut arduino case” to find pre-designed laser designs for electronics.

Some teams more experienced in CAD got creative and made cool decahedrons which actually helped create a working prototype the way they envisioned it on paper.

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In addition to the main event, they hosted keynote speakers and workshops to help take teams ideas even further — we think Communitech (the hosting venue) really summed up the purpose of having hackathons nicely:

“Useful stuff does really emerge from hackathons: some realized ideas, but more importantly, new human hacker connections and a deeper sense of capability and our capacity to create beyond the software realm.”

Overall, the event was fantastic, and it makes us wish there were more like it. You could feel the buzz of excitement in the room when creative people got together and started designing and making things. Oh and the free food was pretty awesome too — especially for students.

For more information about the event, check out the news piece by [Darin White] for Communitech News.

Hackerspace Happeninging: A Booc For C-Base

In the annals of hackerspace history, there’s one space that stands above the rest. It’s c-base, the crashed spaceship below Berlin that’s also one of the first hackerspaces in the world. Before NYC Resistor, Noisebridge, and every other building filled with tools and cool people, there was c-base.

Although the Hackerspace movement has only been around for a little less than a decade now, c-base itself is much, much older. It was founded way back in 1995, marking this year as the second decade of c-base’s existence. A few of the members of c-base are celebrating this occasion by publishing a book on the vast and storied history of their hackerspace.

The mythology of c-base includes a space station crashing in the middle of Berlin, with the giant, famous disco ball in Berlin being the station’s antenna. Yes, it’s weird, but all good hackerspaces have some sort of irreverent mythos surrounding them. The c-booc will document the twenty year long excavation of the space station, chronicling how this hackerspace came to be.

The booc is a Kickstarter project, and if funded, will be available for pickup at the Chaos Communication Camp this August