Hackerspaces are Hard: Safety

Safety is one of those topics that often elicits a less-than-serious response from some tool users. For these folks, they assume their elite skills will protect them and as long as they pay attention, they never will get hurt. This explains the prevalence of the nickname “Stubby” among this population. On the opposite end of the spectrum, safety is also one of those areas where people who don’t know a lot about tools can overreact. Imagine a whole table of kids wearing goggles as one of them gingerly melts some solder. You don’t want solder in your eye, but that’s just not going to happen under normal circumstances.

And then there are freak accidents, which are a reality. On September 20th, a leaking propane tank exploded at Sector67’s new workshop, severely injuring Chris Meyer. Far from a noob, Chris is one of the most experienced people in the shop and was a co-founder of the space. He has a long road of healing ahead of him, and as seems to be the sad necessity these days, he has a GoFundMe campaign to help both with his medical expenses and to help refurbish the workshop. The Foothills Community Workshop also burned to the ground recently, although fortunately no one was injured.

All in all, hackerspaces seem to be reasonably safe, particular considering the challenges they face — or more fairly, the risks associated with the typical hackerspace’s openness. Most hackerspaces allow anyone who pay dues to be a member. There is a wide range of backgrounds, competencies, and judgments represented with, how shall I put it, some unusual viewpoints that might hinder rule-following. And once the member has a fob or key, it’s open season on any kind of tool in the place right? Not everything can have a lock on it.

Here are a few simple rules that have emerged over the years, and may help your hackerspace navigate the twin dangers of complacency and paralyzed fear while preparing for the freak accidents that may simply come to pass.

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A 3D Printer Alone Doesn’t Make A Hackspace

There was a time when hackspaces were few and far between — legendary environments that you’d read about online, where amazing projects were made by people who had come together to form communities of creative technology enthusiasts. Of course, they were always in places far afield, California, or Germany, never in provincial England where I call home. Eventually our movement spread its tentacles into the county towns, and several years later with a stint as a hackspace director behind me I sense that it is on the cusp of escaping its underground roots. Every month seems to bring news of yet another organisation wanting to open a makerspace of their own, be they universities, co-working spaces, enterprise centres, libraries, or even banks. It’s evident that our movement has attracted an aura of edginess when it comes to getting things done, and that these entities are anxious to secure a little piece of that for themselves.

So within a few miles of most hackspaces will be several places where you can find a 3D printer, maybe a vinyl cutter, a CAD workstation, and a soldering iron. There will be a fancy hipster coffee machine and some futuristic furniture, and probably some kind of enclosed meeting pod of dubious design. All of which can no doubt be viewed through a glass wall, so that people in suits can watch all that raw #innovation sizzling away.

Viewed from within the movement, it’s easy to see all this activity on the edges of the world of making as a threat. A struggling community organisation survives on its wits alone, it doesn’t have a multi-million pound (or dollar) university or investor behind it. Its tools are hard-won and patched up, and its coffee machine is a battered electric kettle and a jar of supermarket instant coffee. When it comes to gleaming innovation spaces, a group of assorted makers simply can’t compete. Surely the arrival of these spaces will tempt members away, and the hackspace will inevitably wither, and die.

It’s worth taking a step back at this point, and considering what makes a hackspace. Specifically, what makes a good hackspace.

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Sector67 Hackerspace Rocked by Explosion at New Location

Madison, WI hackerspace Sector67 is in a period of transition as they move from their current rented location to a new property that will be their permanent home a half mile away. Last Wednesday (September 20, 2017) an unfortunate propane explosion in the new building led to the injury of Chris Meyer, the founder and director of the hackerspace.

The structure has been stabilized and renovation is continuing, but Chris was seriously burned and will be in the hospital for at least a month with a much longer road to complete recovery. It is fortunate that nobody else was injured.

This accident comes at a time when Sector67 essentially has two spaces to maintain; the existing space is still running, but many of the members are focused on the construction of the new space. The building needs significant work before the move can take place. Currently the roof is being raised so that the building can go from one awkward-height story to two normal stories, doubling the size. An expiring lease and imminent demolition of the current location by developers means the clock is still ticking on the move, and this explosion means Sector67 will have to work even harder, and without the presence and constant effort of the person who has been leading the project.

A GoFundMe campaign for Sector67 has been started and is well on its way towards helping Chris and Sector67.

A Tale Of Two Raft Races

It’s the height of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and hackers and makers everywhere are letting their hair down and enjoying the hot weather on the water. By coincidence last weekend there were two very different raft races in the European hackspace community, at the SHACamp2017 gathering in the Netherlands the villages competed in a cardboard raft race, while on the other side of the English Channel the various hackspaces in and around London came together in a raft race using more conventional materials.

Some of the SHA entries needed a little help.
Some of the SHA entries needed a little help.

The SHA race came about through the happy confluence of a surplus of disposable cardboard tents, a sunny afternoon, and the inviting waters of the Nuldemauw. The aim of the contest was for hacker camp villages to make it from the bank to the end of the boat dock, a distance of about 100m, in a boat made from cardboard there and then at the camp. Meanwhile the London spaces met at City Road Basin in London with their more robust watercraft for a series of races, the aim of which seems to have been to be the first to get their crew disembarked at the other end of the course. and sitting in a chair on the bank.

Full steam ahead for South London Makerspace. Toby *Spark (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Full steam ahead for South London Makerspace. Toby *Spark (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In both races the inventiveness of the entrants showed itself in a wide range of boat designs. As you might expect those craft with a wider beam fared better than the far less stable narrower ones, with capsizes a feature at each location. Clear winners in the Netherlands were a pair of German teenagers in a very stable wide raft, while in London it was South London Makerspace’s catamaran that scooped the crown. There is a video of the London race which we’ve placed below the break.

The hackspace and makerspace spirit is at its strongest when bonds are forged between members of different spaces. Skills and capabilities are shared, collaboration opportunities abound. The sight of a bunch of European makers getting wet might serve more as entertainment than edification, but behind it lies an important facet of hackspace culture. If you’ve not yet been the spaces closest to yours, do so. You never know, one day you might end up on a capsizing raft because of it.

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Where a Wood Shop Goes, a Hackerspace Follows

The 2×4 Contest at my local hackerspace captured my interest. The challenge was to build something cool out of a single eight-foot 2×4 with the winner getting free wood storage in the space. I had half an idea for a project, but I ran out of time and never even started it. My idea was to cut the board into half-thickness strips and glue them edge-to-edge with some biscuits holding them together — to basically make wider, thinner boards to do… something cool with it.

One of the entries is pictured above. [Jon Alt] designed this clock and phone charger that includes a capacitive charger for his smart watch. He makes use of the 2×4’s grain to make a gorgeous enclosure, carving away the rear of the front panel so only a credit-card’s thickness of wood remained, allowing the 7-segments to shine through. The other entries were great as well and I especially liked the 2×4 guitar.

Mostly what interested me about the contest was what it showed about the wood shop: thanks to the volunteers and board, that is a wood shop doing well. Stuff is going on! A sad wood shop doesn’t hold contests. By extension, when the shop is doing well, that means the hackerspace is also doing well.

A wood shop is one of those areas of a hackerspace that is tool-driven. It’s not just a gathering place for like-minded folks; people go to use a specific tool or tools they can’t afford, and let’s face it, there’s always tools to buy that costs a bunch of money.

I’ve seen this particular shop begin as an empty concrete room with a cheap drill press and someone’s old bandsaw. Pretty soon worktables, shelving, and storage were built. More tools arrived, some donated, some loaned, some purchased with dues. So how can other spaces replicate this wood shop success story?

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North Carolina Hackerspace Destroyed by Fire, Members Vow to Rebuild

There’s something about old industrial buildings that just seems to attract hackerspaces. It could be the open floor plans typical in buildings that used to house big manufacturing operations, or it could be a desire to reinvigorate places where machines once hummed and skilled hands plied their trades. Whatever the attraction, the relationship is not without risk; old buildings with wood floors and frames can be tinderboxes, and tragedy can strike at any moment.

Such a fate befell The Foothills Community Workshop in Granite Falls, North Carolina, this past Friday. Details are still sketchy as the remnants of the 75,000-square foot former Shuford Mills textile factory are still smoldering, and the Fire Marshal’s investigation is not yet complete. Thankfully, no lives were lost, and injuries were limited to heat exhaustion of several of the firefighters from 16 counties who battled the blaze in the hot and humid North Carolina Piedmont.

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Ambitious Hackerboat Project Still Aiming High

Last year we wrote about Hackerbot Labs’ autonomous boat, which project members hope to someday circumnavigate the globe. Now called Project Ladon, progress continues apace with a recent ocean test of their modified 18’ kayak, the TSV Disputed Right of Way. The kayak’s internal spaces contain a pair of lead-acid truck batteries controlled by a home-brewed control system that uses relays to control the craft’s trolling motor, with a Beaglebone and Arduino Mega under the hood.

The test was not exactly a success, with the boat actually avoiding the waypoints rather than sticking to them. Fortunately the team was aboard a chase boat so they were able to keep tabs on the craft. Unlike a quadcopter, which just falls down, a watercraft that borks may never be seen again.

Entered into the 2016 Hackaday Prize, the project has continued to gather steam, with presentations at both Toorcamp and Maker Faire Bay Area. In addition, they’re maintaining their Hackaday.io project site as well as a Patreon page.

Check out a couple of videos after the break! The test video is 360-degrees so you can drag around the POV.

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