A bunch of people who share a large workshop and meet on a regular basis to do projects and get some input. A place where kids can learn to build robots instead of becoming robots. A little community-driven factory, or just a lair for hackers. The world needs more of these spaces, and every hackerspace, makerspace or fab lab has its very own way of making it work. Nevertheless, when and if problems and challenges show up – they are always the same – almost stereotypically, so avoid some of the pitfalls and make use of the learnings from almost a decade of makerspacing to get it just right. Let’s take a look at just what it takes to get one of these spaces up and running well.
Choosing A Legal Form
When choosing a legal form for your makerspace – or anything else – you will usually weigh freedoms against the liabilities. Freedoms can be the ability to make profits, or the possibility to hand out tax-deductible donation receipts. Liabilities can arise from taxation or the claim for damages by a third party. Because it excludes the private assets of the founders from the liability of the makerspace as a legal entity, it’s generally considered safer to form the country-specific equivalent of a limited liability company – an LLC – than going completely unincorporated. Most countries – and most US states (except Kentucky, Minnesota, Tennessee) provide tax-exemptions for LLCs with a non-profit purpose. Still, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and to use your full potential – first – consult your tax consultant and – second – get legal advice from a lawyer, too.
Dealing With Tax And Accounting
Since makerspaces aren’t companies with large numbers of in and outgoing transactions, it’s fair to say that the most basic book-keeping software and a dedicated member will do on the accounting side. However, there’s no point in manually tracking each monthly membership fee payment, so that’s the baseline of functionality you are looking for. At the end of the year, you do good in getting a capable tax consultant to take care of the tax declaration in detail – and in time.
Getting An Insurance
A makerspace needs an insurance, and it’s not necessarily a problem to get one. Yet, some insurance companies will want to inspect the spaces and installations beforehand. This usually creates an insurance gap when you’re just setting up your space, and this is the time when the most accidents happen. Talk to your insurance about this to be insured before and after you open the doors. Also, check the scope of your insurance, and check if it covers only members or also guests of the makerspace.
Setting A Mission Statement
Some see makerspaces as fully fledged prototyping laboratories, where you find all the fancy tools from waterjet cutters to pick-and place machines. To others, this is reserved only to the small community driven factories named fablabs. Another direction turns to makerspaces as purely educational institutions where kids can learn STEM skills and get excited about technology. Or you’re just setting up a repair café. If you want to run a makerspace, there should be clarity about where it’s going.
Sooner or later in your planning phase, you may want to open a spreadsheet and get a feel for the numbers, both for the setup and the operational costs.
The first sustainable income your makerspace is going to have will most certainly be the membership fee, paid by the founders and the first members of the space. Only add other income sources, such as sponsors, if they are secured and not based on speculations.
This is what will have to cover the basic, recurring cost, such as rent, insurance, electricity, broadband internet, water and the tax consultant at the end of the year. If nobody in the founding team has considerable experience with bookkeeping, you may want to outsource that as well and allocate a reasonable amount for that.
Most costs scale with the growth of your space, but first and foremost, it all boils down to the rent. So basically, all you have to do is gather a few reasonable quotes for square meter prices in the area where you want to open your space and figure out the size of the space. This can be done by thinking big and allocating space for the different subsections of a space, or by being economical to see what you can afford from the start and then squeeze everything in that figure.
For the latter option, a reasonable starting point could be a basic minimum of 50 square meters, and for example two square meters of extra space for each member that is expected to join within the first 6 months. At this point, you may already anticipate growth and weigh the cost of paying for extra space now against the cost of relocating later. Usually, relocating is considerably cheaper, although, for a newly started space, the first location should at least allow for a member growth of at least 100%.
The Setup Cost
The setup cost of a makerspace is dominated by the founding cost, mostly state fees and notary cost, the security deposit for the premises, and the cost of making the space usable by and filling it with equipment. The founding team will probably already own equipment to contribute. A few tools here, maybe a small laser cutter or a reflow oven there. That’s good, since it saves you money, and unless you’re running your space as a profitable business with a rock solid business plan, a loan might not be the best start for your makerspace.
You will probably still need a bit of capital to fill your space with more equipment and become operational, and it is a challenge on its own to raise that. If you and the other founders don’t pour in some money, you will need to go on the hunt for sponsors. Either way, these expenses will come with a reasonable planning effort.
If you still have your spreadsheet open, you may have noticed how the numbers change with more members. When you’re just getting started, it’s all about operating efficiently and self-managed. Once you grow, more membership fees come in, and the higher utilization of space and equipment lower the cost per member. Unfortunately, with higher utilization, the impact of equipment downtimes also goes up. If you are just getting started, you probably don’t even have to think about this, but for makerspaces that already have grown to a certain size, the requirement for dedicated workshop staff may arise. The threshold for this is quite high, yet when reaching about 500 members and 1,000 square meters (about 10,000 square feet) of space area, even the best self-management efforts can lead to chaos.
Even if you aren’t about to open a little factory – at the end of the day, projects are born from possibilities. Therefore, equipment is one of the core values a makerspace can offer its members. The acquisition of equipment requires thorough planning to ensure completeness: You don’t need everything, but you need everything to make a project happen.
The First Aid Kit
It’s the first thing you need to get, and it deserves being mentioned first. Every other item can be bought when the need comes up.
Quality And Quantity
The concept of sharing allows you to look for more expensive and higher quality equipment, which will help you tackle the issue of increased wear in a workshop environment. A single industrial grade multimeter is always better than a bucket of broken ones. Yet, neither will enable your members to give a proper electronics workshop with 20 participants. The same is true for soldering irons, screwdrivers, pliers, and many other things.
The Laser Cutter
Laser cutters and makerspaces belong together. These amazing machines are affordable, have a high throughput and low operating cost. Everybody can learn how to use them, and since they are fast and reliable, with rare downtimes, even large spaces usually don’t maintain more than one machine. So what can possibly go wrong? Well, not too much, if you’ve read Donald’s guideline on the topic. Besides the follow-up costs of fume extraction and cooling systems, CO2 laser cutting systems above a certain power level – about 150 Watts – need an oxygen supply to cut metals, which results in higher operating costs.
The 3D Printers
3D-printers and makerspaces belong together, too. But it’s a love-hate relationship. They are easy to use, yet it’s also easy enough to produce failure for people who are new to the toolchain. That is – of course – part of any learning experience, but will inevitably result in downtimes. People will throw the most impossible geometries, G-Code instructions and materials at those machines, and 3D printers aren’t usually smart enough to notice that they are about to break themselves.
Therefore, avoid fancy dual or triple extrusion setups that complicate things even further and go for simple, reliable machines that come with either a proper toolchain or at least some well-tuned presets for open-source toolchains. When you calculate the budget for this section, consider that you will sooner or later need more than one 3D printer because, with growing member count, the low throughput of 3D printers will become a noticeable limitation.
The Rest Of The Machine Park
For commercial makerspaces, it’s typically the way to go for a fully fledged machine park from the start, from the waterjet, 6-axis CNC, press brake and sandblasting chamber, to the TIG welder. The availability of machines accelerates the growth of the member count and quickly compensates for the acquisition costs.
Yet, the force is with NPO makerspaces on this one, and you’d be surprised how much abandoned equipment can be found in the basements of this world. They’re waiting for you to be acquired in exchange for a tax relieving donation receipt or a bucket of corporate-responsibility-karma-points. If possible, approach local manufacturers or resellers directly and ask if they can help you out and you might retrieve an unsellable display item.
Electronic Door Lock
Because it takes an organizational effort to run your makerspace with opening hours, most makerspace operate as open workshops, with people coming and going whenever they want. While members will carry keys, to everybody else, the doors are closed and locked, protecting the valuable infrastructure from theft, vandalism, and occupation.
However, handing out more and more mechanical keys to a mechanical lock brings a significant administrative effort, it also perforates the security of the door in which the lock resides. Eventually, it becomes obsolete. Mechanical keys can be copied, they can be lost, and they can only be invalidated with the consent of the current holder. Especially in makerspaces, where unusual machinery such as key-cutting-machines is not unusual at all, mechanical keys are useless.
An electronic door lock based on contactless smart cards or tags is the way to go here, and in many large makerspaces, this is already a reality. Unlike mechanical keys, contactless smart cards offer protection against cloning. Similar solutions based on NFC or other RFID tags don’t have this cloning protection, but at least they can be tracked and invalidated if they are lost or otherwise compromised. All of them are cheap to acquire in quantities and can be used around the space in many ways, one of them being machine access control. A great example implementation of an NFC-based system is the Milwaukee Makerspace Access Control System. In addition to that, if your makerspace is rather large and has more than one doors, it’s a good idea to implement a form of door lock monitor. This makes it easier to ensure that everything is locked up for the last person that leaves.
Machine Access And Training
Some power tools, such as circular table saws, CNC-machines, lathes and press brakes can be dangerous, but almost all of them are expensive and can take damage quite easily when used inappropriately. With new members entering the machine park, it becomes necessary to provide regular training workshops where members can learn how to use the equipment safely. You may also want to ensure that only members, who have taken the official training, use these machines.
While this should be self-evident and could be implemented as nothing more than a behavioral code, it just doesn’t work like this in reality. Trained members are going to pass on their knowledge to others, which is good, but also comes with some amount of information loss, and sooner or later things start to break. There are various ways in how to deal with this, but the most elegant solution so far is probably the MACS Makerspace Access Control System, created by George Carlson and Kolja Windeler from the Texas MakerBarn. Their smartcard-based system only allows card holders that have received a proper training to actually turn on the machine.
Makers need the option to leave their projects and personal equipment in the makerspace. However, some need more, and some need less space, and you need an effective way to keep the clutter low. Therefore, put a price on storage space, even if it’s just a small one. The smallest possible hurdle that already avoids a lot of clutter may be if members have to purchase their own box, ideally a stackable standard size that is used throughout the space.
The drawer with unsorted, mixed resistors, capacitors, and transistors, or the box with mixed screws may save one’s project on build night. However, keep the clutter low, and one preferred series of resistors is usually more than enough. Unsorted materials are a byproduct of makerspace build nights, not the primary raw material. Make sure it’s easy to store and retrieve all materials in organizer boxes (not just the electronics) and practice the art of throwing things away. You will encounter members or guests bringing their old toasters, printers and other curiosities that may be tempting to accept and store for later use in the material section. Unless you have a particular use for any of these, be it an immediate workshop or an imminent project, it will save you a truckload of disposal efforts (and costs) to say “no thanks” from the beginning and roll with a no-messy culture.
The Board Can’t Do Everything
Every makerspace needs a responsible management team of no less than three members to distribute the responsibilities. The board will initiate the board meetings, poll the members on important decisions, and oversee the whole thing. However, especially in NPO associations, the board members – and probably you if you’re about to start a space – often invest a lot of spare time in the administrative effort to keep everything going. If you don’t want to burn through board members at a fast rate, give space for and implement a self-managing culture.
Commerce In The Space
It can be extremely healthy for a makerspace to have a core group of individuals with a vested interest in the well-being of the makerspace. This can be a startup or a few freelance developers and engineers, or anybody who uses the infrastructure of the space more frequently, eventually becoming the active core. They substantially benefit from the makerspace and therefore are motivated to take a bit of extra care that everything is going well. Their role in the space is not much different from any other member of the space, but their motivation – based on a fair portion of self-interest – will spread contiguously and adds a whole lot to the self-management capabilities of the space. To implement this actively, many makerspaces go one step further and offer co-working space as well.
Due to the open nature of makerspaces, you will sooner or later find your space becoming an ecosystem for tinkerers, semiprofessionals, and engineers with a wide range of interests and know-how. On the one side, they are coming to build their projects, use the equipment, get input and learn things. On the other side, some of them will hold workshops to pass on their knowledge, which also helps to attract new members, service the machines and figure out ways to improve the overall experience. It’s the maker way, so do it yourself.
How To Spend Money
The money for the acquisition of new equipment must come from somewhere, and in an organization where the membership fees are the major income source, it may sound like a good idea to use these funds to buy equipment. However, be aware that there is a very attractive alternative to this top-down approach: earmarked donation campaigns. On the one hand, the raising and allocating of funds increases the administrative efforts for the board, since they have to gather quotes, make suggestions on what to buy and poll the members about them. On the other hand, there will always be members with a low frustration threshold if their membership fees are used to buy a piece of equipment that they deem unnecessary. At least if you are operating as a non-profit, it generally goes smoother to keep the expenses and membership fees low to stimulate growth, wait until a part of the crowd has achieved a consensus about what to buy, and then run a earmarked donation campaign among members and sponsors to buy the thing.
The first and the last thing you have to manage is growth. After you take the leap and go from 0 to 1, you need to reach a critical mass and find the right size for the makerspace in your region. Makerspaces create value for their communities, and therefore, they grow automatically to a certain size by word-of-mouth. Still, growth is a direct result of the amount of community work you’re doing.
Public Workshop Offerings
A full and diverse workshop schedule attracts new members like nothing else, so encourage your members to hold some or hire external mentors. Usually, every single individual in a makerspace knows something worthy to pass on to others, so make use of this resource.
It’s a good culture to welcome guests, give them a tour and show them around. Guests will show up at your door at any given time, and it’s everybody’s responsibility to give them a little introduction. To these visitors, it is the first impression they get from the community in your makerspace, so be sure to do it right.
Being present at local fairs and maker events is probably the most obvious action you can take to promote your makerspace’s presence, right after setting up a website. Yet, it’s the hardest thing to implement. You’ll typically find a certain reluctance among the members to leave the safe constraints of the space and present themselves at a corny stand at a fair. Since it takes a bit of planning ahead, it takes someone to initiate the preparations and sign-up the makerspace for the event. So, if you want this to happen, you need to engage the members to take action in time.
Offer a topic-less, come together once a week, with open doors for members and guests. It’s often called build-night, and even if it’s not the most productive work environment, it’s fun and has a huge retention factor to guests who get hooked up to the energy of making.
The article has grown long, but is still just a crash course of the things involved in starting up a makerspace. These are the social groups of time, and have the potential for great impact on the future of hacking, designing, and engineering. They are well worth the effort and time you and your friends will put into the task.