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Hackerspaces give tinkerers room to work out 'next big thing'

Columbus Idea Foundry. Photos | Ben French
Columbus Idea Foundry. Photos | Ben French

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates famously once said his biggest competitive fear was "someone in a garage who is devising something completely new." His prophetic words came in 1998, while two Stanford grad students sat in a California garage working on a little thing called Google.

Today Google dominates the Internet search business with tech tentacles reaching into everything from email and satellite mapping to news and online advertising. And like Microsoft, it all started in the celebrated workplace of the American entrepreneur: the garage.

While garages are still a tool of many enterprising entrepreneurs, collective tinkering places called hackerspaces have begun to spring up across the U.S. and in Ohio -- modern, uber-garages where dozens of people, from trained engineers and tech enthusiasts to retirees and casual DIYers, work on what could be the "Next Big Thing."
Hackerspaces are well established in Europe, but the U.S. and, specifically, the Midwest, are catching up fast. There are at least six hackerspaces planned or up and running in Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dublin.
Hackerspaces are relatively new in Ohio, the first starting within the last year and a half. Most began as the idea of a person or two who wanted a space to stretch out and create. Members pay a monthly fee, from $25 to $50 a month, and have access to like minds and tools like soldering irons, drills, power saws, sanders, CNC milling machines, digital arts software and more.

Word-of-mouth, Facebook, Craigslist and Web sites like Hackerspace.org spread the news of Ohio hackerspaces. Some spaces are accessible 24 hours a day, while others are open certain days of the week.

Most hackerspaces are popping up in Ohio's urban areas where private garage space is at a premium. And let's face it -- a noisy workshop, no matter how potentially ground-breaking the work, can tick off neighbors in tight quarters.

The Columbus Idea Foundry appears to be the Ohio's most established. It was launched in February 2009 by friends Alex Bandar, an engineer; Mandy Howenstine, a mechanical engineer and Web developer and Nikki Padgett, a corrosion scientist.

"I'm an engineer by day, and I have a sister who's an artist in Vermont, and so I had an interest in exploring the creative side of engineering as opposed to computer programming," Bandar said.

The Idea Foundry with its "Knowledge * Talent * Mischief" motto brings together the art, design, engineering and fabrication communities. It's part workshop, part art gallery and part learning center. It's place where its members can work on individual or group projects in a 1,500-square-foot workshop, take publicly available classes in woodworking, metalworking, electronics in a 900-square-foot Internet-equipped classroom or show off work in an 800-square-foot art gallery.

"We've done a good job of getting some commercial quality equipment into our shop. We have all sorts of welding resources, software and computers," Bandar said.

Among projects that came from the Idea Foundry was an interactive sound sculpture commission by the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University. The 40-foot long sculpture, which responded to movement by playing different sounds, was exhibited at the Rubin Center at the University of Texas El Paso.

"It was a great project blending visual art, auditory art, and electronic interaction," Bandar said.

The Buildmore Workshop in Dublin is set to launch in May through the efforts of founder Brian Blum, a manufacturing engineer from Wisconsin.

"I'd always grown up with a really nice workshop," Blum says. "Before (Buildmore) I was working in my basement or in garage and it was really dusty and messy. So I decided to start up this shop and give other people access to big tools and machinery. I like the fact that I can offer services to everyday inventors and tinkerers where people can innovate and be creative." 

A project concept under way at The Makers Alliance, in Cleveland, is "wearable computing," or shirts with circuitry.

Maker's Alliance founder Justin Walker explains.

"There are possibilities for using this type of clothing in the medical field to monitor people, or to interact with other people," says Walker, an electrical engineer. "For instance, you could shake hands with someone and exchange business cards or other information. The possibilities are endless."

Between 25 and 50 people are part of the Maker's Alliance, which is housed in a temporary space at Goldstein, Caldwell & Associates, a seed capital investment and business development company in Cleveland.  Like most hackerspaces, Maker's Alliance is home to a wide variety of people.

"We have some people with no tech schooling at all, a lot of software engineers and some self-taught creators. We have an interior designer, and people who like to paint," Walker says.

These joint spaces not only foster access to creative tools, but creative minds. Hackerspaces are fertile ground for new, innovative ideas and just plain fun.

"It's really a collective meeting space for tech enthusiasts, a shared workshop. It's a mindshare community. One of the reasons you go there is not for access to physical space, but also the brains of the other people," said Jason Bailey, an IT manager with Amazon.com. Bailey founded Hive 13, a 3,500-square-foot hackerspace in Cincinnati.

Ongoing projects there include 3D printers that print out plastic 3D designed shapes.

"The goal is to come up with an idea design on 3D print prototype in plastic, cast it in metal and actually build things," Bailey said.

Behind all the fun is a serious idea: innovation and honing skills that lead to creating a competitive U.S. workforce, and an entrepreneur class that can create potentially viable products and services.

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