Adventures In Hackerspacing: An Interview with Chris Boden of The Geek Group

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There are some big hackerspaces out there.
And then there’s The Geek Group.
It takes a certain chutzpah to convert a 43,000 foot former YMCA into a hackerspace. And an epic hackerspace it is, complete with 5 axis CNC machines, 3d printers, and of course, giant robots romping through a forest of Tesla coils.  The Geek Group has performed live demos in front of thousands of people over the years, and inspired tens of thousands more via the internet. You don’t work this big without having some big adventures, and The Geek Group is no exception. They’ve been through roof leaks, gas pipe breaks, surprise tax bills and angry neighbors. They’ve also been dealing with their current adventure, fire.

Unless you’ve been under a rock the last few weeks, you’ve probably read about the recent fire, and ensuing cleanup at The Geek Group labs. We’ve covered the fire and its cause here on Hackaday, with no small amount of drama in our comments section. There is a small but vocal minority who don’t have many good things to say. Accusations of cults, safety violations, and tax evasion often fly. While some groups would take this lying down, the geek group put on their flame proof suits and wade through the comments. None more vocally than [Chris Boden], the president, CEO and founder.

DISCLAIMER: The interview contains questionable content and some profanity (which we’ve altered as grawlix). We have posted the transcript as it was captured, which includes some spelling and grammar issues. Please consider these things before clicking through to the interview itself.

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Geek Group Fire Update

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The Geek Group is in the process of cleaning up after their fire. Their small capacitor/spark gap room sustained the most damage, with the interior nearly completely incinerated, along with some structural damage to the walls and roof.  The gap room was isolated from the much larger high voltage lab by red plastic welding curtain. The curtain was fire-retardant, but when it did finally burn, it was extremely sooty. With the curtain burning, soot covered the high voltage lab. The rest of the building escaped fire damage, but nearly all of it is covered in a fine layer of soot. The group has been and are attacking the soot problem head on, with shop-vacs, rags, and elbow grease. Several of their sponsors have also promised supplies to cover the remediation.

[Chris] and [Paul] have also been doing some sleuthing as to the root cause of the fire. While the cause will never be known beyond a shadow of a doubt, they have a pretty good idea of the chain of events. Gemini, the group’s 200 kVA Tesla coil had been run about 1/2 hour before smoke was detected. The fire was concentrated in Gemini’s spark gap room. Close inspection of the rotary spark gap showed that the stationary electrodes all seemed to have sustained a mechanical impact. It appears that either while the gap was running, or as it was spinning down, one of the flying electrodes moved enough to impact the stationary electrodes. These electrodes are 3/8″ and 1/2″ tungsten, and often glowed white-hot while the gap was in operation. One set screw held each electrode in to the 12″ rotor. The set screw of one flying electrode was found to be loose, and the electrode it retained probably impacted the stationary electrodes. It’s not a far leap to guess that hot metal from these impacts could have landed in the capacitor array, smoldered, and eventually caught aflame.

A single loose screw most likely caused the entire chain of events leading up to the fire. [Chris] and [Paul] had observed the spark gap throwing out hot bits of metal even during normal operation, and had planned an encapsulation box. However, disaster struck before it was built. This is not to say that The Geek Group operates an unsafe shop. The important thing here is that no one was hurt. Everyone in the building was evacuated quickly and safely.

A quick note about the comments – we know The Geek Group and [Chris] tend to be polarizing topics. However, we’d like to at try to keep the comments constructive.

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Fire At The Geek Group

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The Geek Group, an absurdly large and well stocked hackerspace in Grand Rapids, Michigan caught fire yesterday.

You may recall The Geek Group from their many over-the-top projects that include a quarter shinker, a 200,000 Watt Tesla coil, enough capacitors to kill a demi-god, and a giant robot that crushes TVs. From what TGG has shown on their website and their YouTube, they have an amazing space that could still be the home of quite a few amazing builds.

According to Geek Group head honcho [Chris], the fire was caused by an overheated electric motor. No one was at the space at the time, but the fire was hot enough to crack the exterior brick and melt porcelain insulators in their high voltage lab. To add insult to injury, this was only TGG’s second day of being open to the public.

The folks at The Geek Group are looking for volunteers for their cleanup, so if you’re around the Grand Rapids area and would like to pitch in, head on over around noon today.

The Geek Group Installs Robot, Destroys CRT Monitor

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The Geek Group recently documented the process of overhauling part of their workspace to accommodate Project Jeff, a massive KUKA KR-350/1 industrial robot.

We don’t see many behind the scenes industrial-scale projects here at Hackaday, but we’re definitely impressed with the clever techniques employed to pull off this precision install. At around 5 inches deep, the original floor was far too thin to handle the weight and tortional loads imposed by Project Jeff, so The Geek Group carved out a 15′ square space of old concrete and dumped it piece by piece in the rubbish. They then dug a new hole to a depth of 2.5′ and filled it with a fresh pour that amounted to 67,500 pounds of concrete. Sheesh.

That concrete will inevitably expand and move around, which meant installing a pool-noodle-looking slip cover to protect a buried conduit from damage, as well as placing some gaskets around the edges to prevent cracking while maintaining a seal. Around 10 minutes into the video, they tackle the challenge of embedding bolts that connect to the robot’s base; it takes some patience and creative ladder positioning to fit the template in the correct position.

As an added treat, The Geek Group smashed a CRT monitor in our honor, and while they claim software limitations and a steel frame prevented Project Jeff from completely annihilating the monitor, we like to think the skull and cross-wrenches just refused to be destroyed. Because, you know, science. Videos after the break.

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Project Thumper Walkthrough

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The Geek Group is at it again! Many years ago they built Project Thumper, a 1,600V @80,000A electrical impulse … well … “thumper”.

For those of you that don’t know, The Geek Group is the world’s largest not-for-profit Hackerspace. Lately they have been working on developing better videos for their YouTube channel, and have just released a stunning CGI animation of the build, operation, and explanation of Project Thumper.

So what is Project Thumper? In the simplest terms, it’s a giant capacitor, or more specifically, an entire server rack filled with capacitors. The Hackerspace uses it for experiments and demonstrations — but from the looks of their videos, they mostly just use it to blow things up, as shown in their 2008 Project Promo video. I think we would too. They even used it to blow up an iPhone! (Skip to 3:00 for the explosion). We think someone with a high-speed camera really needs to film Thumper in action!

The awesome CGI animation explanation of it is after the break.

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Computers Not Candy with The Geek Group

This year for Halloween, The Geek Group, decided to take a very different approach to outreach. Instead of making animatronics, or converting their giant (seriously HUGE) space into a haunted house, they held an event called “Computers Not Candy” where they teamed up with a large local company to bring 100 tablet computers to 100 youths.

If you’re not already familiar with the Geek Group, you should check them out. They’re a huge hackerspace that really seems to have their act together. They put out really cool videos regularly, our favorite being the equipment autopsies.

While we really do admire the work they did to introduce these kids to hackerspaces, we also love candy and silly spooky projects. Next year how about Computers AND Candy!

Hackerspace Intro: The Geek Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan

We’re happy to see some links rolling in from our call for Hackerspace introductions. This is sort of a reintroduction of The Geek Group. They’ve been around for a while and we’ve featured several interesting projects coming out of the collective (check out this pulse capacitor autopsy). You may remember some tax woes they ran into when the home base was located in Kalamazoo, but they’ve moved past the issue and moved out of town. This is their new location in Grand Rapids, MI and you can get a peek at the tour starting about 4:45 into the video after the break. Be warned, there is some mildly vulgar language in the video in the form of the ‘S’ word (you’re welcome cubicle dwellers).

We hope you’ll look at the video and see that we don’t need to you spend a week in post-production. Give us a tour by video as if we were there in person. Show us what you’re up to and we’ll be eternally grateful.

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