What Would You Put In A Shipping Container Makerspace?


Imagine that you have been asked to construct a portable shipping container workshop that will be sent to the other side of the globe, where the power grid is sketchy and the resources tight. If you had $20,000 to outfit this 20’ container, what components and tools would you include?

This was the question recently posed to us by [Luke Iseman], CTO at re:char. He and his partners are in the midst of putting together a mobile makerspace that will eventually be shipped over to Western Kenya in order to help the locals fertilize their land using biochar. The primary function of this workshop will be to build biochar chambers, so plenty of durable tools and machines are a must. They already have a pretty solid list of items put together, but they wanted input the from makers and hackers out there, who may have worked under similar conditions.

Have any suggestions? Share them in the forum, we’re sure [Luke] and co. will appreciate it!

51 thoughts on “What Would You Put In A Shipping Container Makerspace?

  1. You should probably think low tech and no tech, forget the CNC mill, 3d printers, laser scanners, computers and making PCBs. These are awesome to have for a “true” hackerspace, but pointless in the middle of nowhere.

    Take a look at what indians and africans are doing forging steel tools in bare feet with rocks.

    What is the purpose of this? If the purpose is to create biochar, all you really need is the capability of making biochar stoves and such. Perhaps you could help the people out by making Magh Smoke burners ( http://e-smokeburnerstove2.blogspot.com/ ) or the like and giving them a way to cook food and boil water with twigs and leaves instead of having to cut trees for firewood while at the same time creating biochar.

      1. As in all things, you get what you pay for. Using the link from the forum post was fine, but when I reopened that tab it had two different photos. Now it seems like they set the security too tight, you can even read it without permission to simply view it. I use google docs to share simple documents to anyone interested, with a web browser. The options aren’t that difficult to figure out.

  2. Not safe work link,eh? When using google docs best to limit who can edit them or lock them to read only In the event they absolutely have to use the shipping container as a work space, insulation, and ventilation should be the first order of business. Most likely a better work space could be constructed locally out of local materials. Without any indication as to what the need to manufacture, impossible to make suggestions. Biochar is not unknown in the US http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQyRAHc7uhw . I wonder why they aren’t choosing to make the biochar in the fields they intend to enrich http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/Make-Biochar-To-Improve-Your-Soil.aspx ?

  3. The logical answer is “tools to make tools” and the goal is to go from “crude to precise” in the process. In my field of archaeology I enjoy and study enabling technologies, so I’d probably set the bar pretty high and say : Axe, Saw, hand drill, knifes of al sorts.

    This is, ofcourse, fun and games but has no chance to compete with modern tech, So i’d say, when the shaving horses and lathes are build, automatically, the hatch in the container opens and revielves. linux distro’s, pc hardware, atmega dev-boards, servos and the lot !

    On a more serious note.. Still tools that can make tools. Maker-bots (+ hardware), materials and materials that can make more materials.

    Hard proposition this is.. really ..

  4. I’d say you’ve got the right idea with the redundancy/durability. I’d assume most of the work will be low tech stuff like pumps and simple mechanisms, so you’d want alot of crude metal working tools and a few fine ones. Welder, plasma cutter, metal band saw, hand drills, drill presses, grinders, dremels for fine work, that sort of thing. Lots of fasteners would probably be a good idea also if availability will be limited on site. But you probably knew all that. One thing: I wouldn’t underestimate the utility of simple hand-tools that don’t need maintenance or use consumables (hand files, channel locks, prying tools etc). Now that I think about it, LOTS of channel locks and C-Clamps; very useful, every shop should have them in abundance.

  5. I cannot stress how often I find myself looking for another pair of visegrips. I really truly can’t. Its one of those tools that allows quick easy stopping points on jobs. Clamp something together while glue dries, next job; align something and clamp it in place so you can work on the other end of it, next job; on and on and on. The things are indispensable in a real working shop, vs a hobby hackspace. However many they plan on bring, and I recommend several in different sizes, double it.

      1. Technical books, e.g. that you might find from http://www.lindsaybks.com/ , would be quite helpful as many others have mentioned. I’ve bought a few from lindsaybks, and they’re all pretty good.

        I highly recommend getting a copy of their catalog, and applying your google-fu on any titles of interest before making a purchase. Most of their stock seems to be out-of-print works that can be, legally, found online in PDF form.

        I tend to only buy the ones that aren’t, or ones where I don’t want to spend my time making a physical copy.

  6. A hand brake for sheet metal. In fact everything I could get that is manual metal forming or cutting, etc.. then one small turret lathe and drill press. Lots of woodworking tools as well.
    the walkway down the center holds 3 large windmills to be erected when the container arrives.

    And the far end, a small secure library with a lot of books from the 1950-s to 1990’s that cover homesteading, building sustainable power and off grid living and how to build all your own stuff. None of the worthless books from today that don’t teach you anything. All with translations to the destination’s native language.

  7. As others have mentioned — basic metal shop tools. In addition to those mentioned already, ****safety equipment(goggles, ear protection, welding masks, heavy gloves, toe caps, filter masks, fire extinguishers, first aid kits)****, bench grinder, bench vise, a variety of clamps ranging from corner to bar to C, a ton of baling wire (for holding welding projects together where a clamp won’t hack it), a range of hammers, pliers, vice grips, angle grinder, cut-off saw, a variety of abrasive disks for both of the above, fasteners and other hardware, metal lathe, milling machine, drill press, taps and dies, arbor press, punches and gravers, a supply of Sharpies or other means of marking parts, ….

    The specifics all depend on how capable you need this shop-in-a-box to be in the long run; the list should be prioritized so you can work your way down it until the budget runs out.

    1. Ditto on the safety equipment. Send about twice what you think they need, especially for consumables such as safety glasses and lens shades. When I visited Tanzania, everyone and his brother seemed to have a stick welder and an angle grinder, but no one used (read “had”) welding masks, safety glasses, or any other PPE. This may partially explain the disproportionately large number of blind people I met.

  8. Firstly, a Lathe. Rightly known as the king of machine tools. In a way, this idea is a case of “What’s old is new again”: during WWII lots of trucks were fitted with complete toolshops to support repairs close to the front. There were machine shop trucks, welding trucks, instrument repair trucks, painting trucks and others. See some examples here http://www.usarmymodels.com/AFV%20PHOTOS/GMC%20MAINTENANCE%20TRUCK/GMC%20Maintenance%20Truck.html

  9. I would be sure to include the complete Popular Mechanics Illustrated Home Handyman Encyclopedia. I remeber these from childhood. Even if English isn’t your primary language the hundreds of detailed illustrations are sure to provide alot of inspiration. Also since these books are from the early 60’s, even people with primitive tools and resources could complete the projects with what’s available.
    Solar cells, wind generators and LEDs. Basic power tools would be useful but without the ability to generate electricity they arnt much good

  10. A forge and anvil with a good supply of tool steel, lathe, drill press, files and bits. A table saw and wool working hand tools, lumber gathering tools like cross cut saw, ax, chains . lots and lots of books.

  11. Never underestimate the power of a fresnel lens in a 3rd world country. Boiling water, melting metal/plastic, starting fires, cooking. I would say lots of PVC piping and pumps so they can build irrigation/water purification setups. PVC is great for construction too. Maybe even some kind of refrigeration setup so they can store/transfer water without containers or perishable food. Sawdust and ice makes a great temporary building/scaffolding material. You could always have them make an ammonia refrigeration loop from urine byproducts with a little chem lab. Lastly one of the most common uses of the OLPC was its screen, so include thousands of white LEDs so they can make any size lighting setup they want.

  12. Ooooh, I get to know something!! Just so happens I studied pyrolysis and I just came back from a couple years in Uganda!


    I’m a bit confused by the purpose. Is the soil amendment char going to be competing with the very widely used (often unsustainable) charcoal for energy? What about the pretty noxious pyrolysis vapor (bio-oil) that will result? Is their process REALLY carbon negative? Are people going to want it? What is the feedstock? Why is a shipping container needed? Is a $20,000+ shipping container jumping the gun a bit?

    Lots of questions. If the shipping container idea is a prototype for something they eventually want locals to do, then $20,000 is very very very very expensive. It also represents a wonderful income activity for thieves. If it is for the research and development of the whole concept, than that is a different story.

    So lets say I have no idea what the purpose really is. I would suggest:

    -An ex-refrigerated shipping container and/or a roof. That thing WILL turn into an oven.

    -Good security AND guard. $20,000 sitting out somewhere will be enticing. That budget should include that.

    -Put some of the $20,000 into the container and DONT leave $20,000 worth of equipment laying around.

    -Remember equipment will want to wander away.

    -KISS!!!! to the max. Things WILL break…you AND the locals should be able to do the repairs. In fact, it would be best if they use their own resources (i.e. welders). The exception would be if you really need to just work and you have a technical team…but thats not sustainable.

    -If you want electricity and go with solar, make sure it is sized correctly. Remember batteries get old and must be replaced. They will seem very expensive to locals…because they are. Also make the panels very theft resistant.

    – If it is grid connected then get a stabiliser or “fridge/IT guard” while there (they generally are not available in the US). In fact, everyone should have one. They are automatic mains cut-off switches that turn off they power if something is wrong with the power. They provide much better protection than just a surge protector.

    -If you need to just work and electricity is required, get a properly sized generator IN COUNTRY (it will break and you need the parts). Remember gas prices are different.

    -If the shipping container is mobile: Secure everything as though it WILL be in an accident. Keep in mind the fuel needed for keeping it mobile.

    – Since this is the beginning, I suggest you have some tools and methods for R&D. You should be able to weight your feedstock and product…somehow. A high temperature IR thermometer might help you improve efficiency of the pyrolysis unit (exterior temperature, insulation, that kind of thing). A data logger with K-type thermocouples will let you monitor and improve the pyrolysis reactions. Oooooh, get good respirators with activated carbon filters!!! Thats the basic stuff, but it can certainly get more complicated and expensive.

    – It might be a cool idea to include a “grow” area to grow lots of little plants in a more controlled setting.

    – Fixed and mobile (for community) whiteboard (I had flip chart paper) AND pens…unless its a blackboard.

    – Drinking water tank with a filter candle drip system. It can be done pretty inexpensively and I would suggest all household and businesses have something similar.

    – Hand-washing station. Again, every household and business would benefit from one.

    – Water storage and possible rain water collection (depending on the area). You need water and so do the people you want to come.

    – tools (at least): 12V soldering iron, wire strippers, needlenose pliers, electrical tape, drill (electric is wonderful, but at least have a hand drill), hammer, good drill bits, saw,

    – Bring any philips stuff you want with you

    – Have an easy to use accounting system, USE IT, AND be willing to change it to make it more appropriate later on. In other-words, treat like a business from the beginning.

    – Have a record keeping system

    -Graph paper

    – DUST!! Lots of dust!! Focus on using stuff that will not be damaged by dust. Otherwise, try to keep stuff covered. If you have IT equipment you must clean the inside regularly.

    – Think about secondary purposes and education. For example, perhaps the container could also server as a community classroom for continuing education or skill building. For example, you could combine a place for hosting an AIDs/HIV woman’s support group with teaching those same people skill for making their own bio-char. What about using the bookkeeping system to teach others about very basic accounting.

    – Remember that others need to WANT to do it for it to happen sustainably. The doers should also have a feeling for ownership.

    – Bridge, whirring sounds, captains chair, lights and buttons that dont do anything, model of a ship, endless whiskey, light sabre, and a cool warning klaxon.


    Ok, thats enough! Its 2:16am and as far as I know what I just wrote was a rambling babble. Maybe there is something useful hidden in there.

  13. We have a 40′ container in a cane field in central Maui for our Makerspace – its a very dusty, windy spot. Being able to move equipment outside with some shelter from wind/dust would be good. Definitely put some ventilation on that container. A solar powered fan would be good – make it two – one force in, one out and put filters on em.

    I like list items from Wolf and FractalBrain…. Heavy on the metal working – Metal Break, a Beverly Shear, A TinManTech Air Power Hammer (if you got air and protect from dust), some good bench and hand dollies, hammers. Lathe/mill, band saw, drill would be nice. Good hand tools, grinder. and welding gear. Course all that needs electricity… and the solar setup will blow your $20k budget quick.

  14. knives
    sharpening stones
    farm/garden equipment
    hunting tools.
    plastic tarps
    reference books on how to do farming and gardening
    solar powered LED flash lights

    go to home depot for a shopping spree

  15. I’d want to send several fully equipped blacksmith’s forges, preferably with hand cranked blowers. You’d need a selection of hammers, an anvil, bottom tools and set tools for each forge, steel drums for water, plenty of sheet metal and bar stock, lots of rivets, maybe a generator/welder and a bunch of stick electrodes. As has been said above, make sure to bring about ten times as much safety gear as you actually need; the population there already has tools, and they already know how to use them. In fact, with the extra skills they’ve learned using crude tools, third world smiths are better than any first world hobby smith will ever be. They just don’t have the extra money for safety.

    Just because it needs to be repeated; If this ‘makerspace’ includes even one programmable controller, it’s too much. Everything in the shop should be simple enough that you could explain how to make one. Not how to program it, how to make it. You can’t clone arduinos by telling someone who’s working with crude tools how to program a PLC, and the PLC doesn’t do anything in terms of process control that they couldn’t do with a kid watching the process.

    I’m actually wondering if this project isn’t an example of neocolonialism’ and ‘whitey knows best’ thinking. Biochar can be made the same way charcoal has always been made in the third world. Biochar is ancient tech. You pile your wood, pile dirt over it, leaving air channels, then light the pile. When it gets burning good and hot, shovel more dirt into the air channels. Keep watch over it for several days to make sure the dirt covering stays air tight. Once it cools, shovel the dirt off, smash the charcoal up with axes or hammers, and rake it into your soil. Teach them WHY they should be using biochar (increased crop yields, not the underlying ‘good for the planet’ feelgood part) and how to make it with the tools they have. Then you’ve got a better than even chance they’ll keep doing it when you leave. Bring in a lot of fancy machine tools, pretend like this is some esoteric process that needs high tolerance, you’ll lose your audience, and when you leave, even if you leave the tools behind, they’ll be used for something else. Come back in a decade and every single arduino, every single makerbot, every single computer controlled milling machine will be broken down to parts, reforged into something actually useful, and used in ways you didn’t expect.

    1. This. A thousand times, this. I read the Open Source Ecology pages and had to laugh. What use is a laser cutter when you can’t replace the laser? what good is a cow milker when your cows are starving? Those are all automated production techs, when nobody living at subsistence levels needs automated tech. They need basic tech and knowledge of where to apply it.

  16. Really?
    Plasma cutters?
    Kinect, laser scanners?!?!

    To cut what? The large plates of air that you can get in there?
    Thin metal will rust, so there is no need to a spot welder, and a good stick welder can also weld thin metal in the right hands.
    Also almost electric tools?

    No hand drills?
    No vertical drill?
    Nice project -.-

  17. I misread the title thinking that we were just going to all pool money together to get a shipping container and ship a bunch of stuff from China that doesn’t make sense to do on a one off basis (heavy, bulky machinery like mills/lathes/CNC). Someone would be in China buying the stuff/coordinating and then in a month or two we would get a shipping container in LA…on second thought unless you live close to LA, this probably wouldn’t make sense.

  18. You know, the more I think about this, and read people’s thoughts, the more I think that this is a poorly thought out idea. If you want to spend the $20,000 on everything needed to set up a biochar generator *factory*, or just a large-scale generator, then, yeah, it makes sense. Just throwing a bunch of high tech in a box doesn’t. The best idea I can think of to add to the multitude that have already been suggested is to publish a series of books that contain useful articles from old Popular Mechanics/etc. magazines (…which has things like ‘Build Your Own Arc Welder‘), and updated/rewritten items from ‘Young’s Demonstrative Translation Of Scientific Secrets‘. In other words, keep the tech level to 19th/early 20th century levels to give them a *much* better chance to find something that will actually be useful for them.

  19. All this stuff is great but if this is a one time gift… after saws and drill bits get dull they need to be sharpened. Sharpening tools will help them keep their consumables costs down… The need things to to help them re-shape and reuse what they have around them. Not things like a reprap that need expensive supplies. Cheap power from a windmill or solar panel could power an extensiveness collection of digital information and the ability to duplicate and add to it themselves.

  20. What does the power grid is sketchy actually mean?

    There are frequent power cuts? are we talking a few times a day? couple of times a week?

    Are they lacking solar capabilities or is there just no way to get enough power from panels to power these machines? is wind viable (wind turbines, or stuff to make turbines should be included -vehicle alternator based ones would be best due to spare parts availability). Is there frequently not enough petrol for generators?

    If electricity is a real problem then consider taking air tools rather than electric ones, pumps can be run from either electric (solar/wind/grid), water wheel, or at a push just plain old human power to charge a cylinder that can then power tools even after the grid has failed sun’s gone down and wind isn’t blowing.

    Plus an air set up can be expanded as and when any old compressed gas bottle (propane for cooking) is empty, giving more capacity for storage.

    Why the hell are they sending CNC machines to a place where they can’t even guarantee electricity and nobody knows how to use it?

  21. :foreheadsmack: As the goal of the project is to create biochar/woodgas, why not just load up the container with the tools and materials to convert the container itself into a biochar/woodgas generator? The end-product could be then sold to buy another container and enough materials to convert another one, etc., etc., etc. I have some ideas on how it could be done efficiently, but I’ll have to call up Fred Colgan to see what he says about the specifics.

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