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Makerspaces: Here’s what you need to know about these quirky community labs

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You may not have heard of them before, but it’s likely that a makerspace is open near you right now.

Makerspaces, sometimes called hackerspaces, are workspaces where almost anyone is permitted to pursue scientific exploration in a community space. Often non-profit and hosted everywhere from garages to libraries to warehouses, makerspaces are collaborative, open to all ages, and can host tools ranging from scissors and pre-cut carboard to laser cutters.

Interested? Here’s an introduction.

Where are they?

In short, almost everywhere. Makerspaces are found on every continent except Antarctica and in cities large and small. There is one in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and one on Tenerife, in the Atlantic Ocean. There are more than two dozen in the New York City area and one each in Kolkata, Whitehorse, Yukon,  and Hong Kong. You can also find them in far-flung locales such as Java, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia.

What’s in them?

It depends – each place is different and the tools available depend in part on the space’s specific mission and how deep its pockets are. At Parachute Factory in Las Vegas, N.M., for example, you can find a laser cutter and several 3D printers. Urban Workshop in Costa Mesa, Calif., meanwhile, has sanders, sandblasters, wire wheels, vinyl cutters, soldering irons, engine hoists, battery chargers, kilns, computers, video editing software, programming software, and thousands of square feet of meeting and event space. Makerspaces aimed at children can have cool tools ranging from Snap circuits to simple-to-program robots.

How much does it cost to visit?

Most makerspaces run on a membership plan, where members pay a monthly subscription cost. That amount can vary based on a number of factors, but a typical makerspace, like Columbia Gadgetworks in Columbia, Mo., costs $40 a month. Makerlab, in Durango, Colo., has basic monthly memberships ($45), advanced monthly memberships ($65), and family monthly memberships ($90). Want to get a feel for the vibe before committing? Many makerspaces host free nights, like the costume-building night at Port City Makerspace in Portsmouth, N. H.

Is a makerspace the same as FabLab and Techshop?

FabLab and Techshop are trademarked makerspaces. Techshop, now out of business, was a chain of makerspaces run by a corporation while FabLab is run by a foundation and grew out of a MIT project.

FabLab has locations around the world, including in Iowa City, near the home of Integrated DNA Technologies. The Steam Room FabLab Iowa City is open to everyone and has everything from engravers to sewing machines.

What are some cool projects to come from makerspaces?

The sky’s the limit. Inventive creations include circuits, Lego robots, flashlights, battery-powered boats and cars, holiday-themed lanterns, puzzles, radios, and more.

What is the difference between a makerspace and a hackerspace?

Err—not much. Hackerspaces, which first appeared in the 1990s, were places where computer nerds could collectively meet, work, and share their tools to “hack” technology to make it do what it wasn’t meant to do. Hackerspaces gradually morphed into makerspaces as tools like laser cutters and 3D printers became more affordable.

Can you start your own?

Absolutely! There are plenty of tutorials out there to help, along with reams of tips and hints. But you need more than a garage and some lab beakers. You also need to consider legal status such as forming a limited liability corporation or a nonprofit, how to handle insurance, taxation, and accounting, and what your mission statement will be. Then you need to consider how people will access the space, what sort of staff you will (or won’t) have, how people will be trained and certified on the machines, and how you can interact with the public, whether that is through events like the Maker Faires or simple facility tours.

Ultimately, says Artisan’s Asylum, in Somerville, Mass., makerspaces are about community.

“To describe them simply, makerspaces are community centers with tools,” the site declares on its how-to page. “Makerspaces combine manufacturing equipment, community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone.”

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