The rise of the “makerspace” (aka FabLab, hackerspace, etc.) means more people of all ages and backgrounds can have access to tips and technology to make anything they can imagine into reality.  This is great for personal projects and “tinkering”, but gets truly powerful and urgent when you also open the opportunity to learn real-world skills for the job market of today and tomorrow.

What is a makerspace?

What makes a makerspace is not how complex and state-of-the-art the technology or machinery is within it’s walls - if there even are walls.  It’s the attitude behind it.  A makerspace is a place where trying something new is encouraged, and failure is not a bad word, as long as you learned something.

The Studio, a makerspace at the Long Beach Public Library

Where can I find a makerspace?

Schools are probably the fastest growing segment for makerspaces.  They are popping up in elementary, middle, and high schools all over the world, and not just for the science and robotics kids.  Universities and technical training schools have them for students and teachers to tinker and cause breakthroughs in their research.  Afterschool programs use them for CTE (career technical education) and vocational skills, and to help bring that boring homework to life.

Public libraries are re-inventing themselves to be a more up-to-date resource for their communities.  Libraries have always been a community hub for anyone to have access to information and training - not limited to books and card catalogues.  For the past 20 years, libraries have been making computers available for people to check their email, learn to use common office programs, and access the internet for research.  Having a makerspace in a library continues this trend.  Many will offer classes on how to use the technology, sometimes run by volunteers with a passion for it.  With 3D printers, they may charge per hour of printing, or by how much material you use.  Some are completely free of charge!  Some libraries, like Glendale, California and Vancouver, Canada, even have recording studios available for patrons to create podcasts, music, and voiceovers for projects.  

The Learning Lab at the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library in Long Beach
The Learning Lab at the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library in Long Beach

These programs are great for anyone of any age to keep up with new skills and enjoy learning something new on a Saturday, but the impact could be farther-reaching than that.  Some libraries market their makerspaces to local businesses and entrepreneurs. If you’ve got a new product you want to bring to market and you don’t have your own 3D printer, you could pay a service bureau to create it for you, or you could go to the library and use their machines.  Some libraries make agreements with entrepreneurs in exchange for a percentage of their company to kick back to support the space which helped launch them, should they become successful.  This is a great way to make any makerspace self-sustaining.  At the very least if a business got their start at the library, they could become a Friend Of The Library and help to keep that space going.

The Innovation Lab at the San Diego Public Library

Major corporations like NASA are also building makerspaces for their employees to have a place to try new ideas, where it is much safer to fail than on the job.  Employees can learn new skills from each other, and pursue personal projects.  Learning a new skill has even been shown to make someone better and more creative in their originally chosen field.

Community makerspaces are also popping up in cities around the world where maker-types just want to hang out and learn stuff from each other.  Some are membership-based and feature everything from silkscreening and kilns to full auto lifts for working on your car.  These spaces are especially interesting when you think about the person who comes to use the sewing machine, and ends up in conversation with someone working with arduinos in the next room.  Maybe they work together to develop wearable technology we’ve never even imagined!  Most makerspaces have free meetups and events which are open to the public so you can check it out and get to know your fellow making community.  When I purchased my first 3D printer and couldn’t get it to work, I Googled “makerspace” and found a meetup where people were more than happy to help get me up and running!

Community driven makerspaces are great for meeting other creative people in your area - like HackPGH in Pittsburgh! 

How To Get Started:

Ultimately, a makerspace is not about the budget you have, it’s the mindset.  Here are a few tiers of ideas to get you started.

3D Printing Pens ($89+)

There is no easier way to get started in 3D printing than a 3D printing pen.  These low-cost imagination machines are safe for kids (recommended age 8+), and a fantastic way to introduce the concept of making anything you can imagine into a thing you can hold in your hand and show off to your friends.  They are also powerful tools if you already have a 3D printer.  You can use them to bond multi-part prints, or to fill in gaps and fix broken prints.  Using the same PLA or ABS that the part was originally built with creates a strong bond – a technique we see used a lot in professional costume and prop making.

The technology is very similar to a hot glue gun.  The material gets fed into the back of the pen, heated up and melted, and then squished out into whatever shape you want.  It’s also the same basic technology as a 3D printer, only your hand is creating the movement instead of g-code and stepper motors.  It uses the same PLA filament or ABS filament that your 3D printer would use (mostly 1.75mm) so you may not even need to purchase anything additional.

Users can get a sense for what it’s like to create an object in 3D space by playing around with making shapes and letters flat on the surface, or building a model in vertical layers, exactly like a 3D printer would.   When the plastic is dry, just pop your model off the table and you’ve got a thing!

How are 3D printing pens being used?  Besides general creative expression, we’ve seen fantastic classroom and library projects which can bring CORE curriculum to life:

  •      Basic letters and shapes for young tactile learners
  •      Shapes of states and countries
  •      Creating constellations
  •      Learning cells and genes for biology
  •      Bridge and structure building challenges
  •      Mini props and costumes, like fun plastic mustaches and glasses frames
  •      Custom ornaments for the holidays, and hand-made gifts for Mother’s and Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.
Make custom props and items easily with the Crafty Pen!

3D Printer ($599+)

The cost of entry to have a 3D printer in your makerspace may not be as high as you think.  Since 2012, 3D printers have been coming down in price, while becoming more reliable and feature-rich.  Free, open-source 3D printing control and slicing software has become easier to use, and free 3D design tools like Tinkercad are allowing anyone to bring their designs to life without any special training.

Ultimakers are some of the most reliable desktop 3D printers available for any makerspace - find them here

You can find more info on how to choose the right 3D printer for you HERE.  In a makerspace, there are lots of uses for a 3D printer.  For someone who just wants to learn the basics, downloading designs from the MatterHackers Design Store or Thingiverse is a great way to get started.  There are lots of useful items, wearable designs, and generally fun models to choose from.

You could also use your 3D printer to make assistive devices for people in your community who need them.  Most people think of e-NABLE robot-hands as the go-to project for doing social good with your printer, and this is still a great option to make a custom assistive device for someone in your community with limb differences.

There are lots of other helpful items you could print.  The Within Reach Design Challenge garnered over 200 new designs for people with limitations in their hands and fingers, and all can be downloaded and printed for free.  Your makerspace can print them for members of your own community, or bring them to a local hospital or nursing home.

The Brandy Story - the motivation behind the Within Reach Design Challenge & how to use 3D printing to help others

You can also print designs for members of your community who are blind or visually impaired.  The Envision The Future challenge brought 165 new designs into the world which can be downloaded for free and printed on any 3D printer.  Models include a Braille map of the US with raised edges for each state, a kettle-pouring guide to avoid spills, and braille tiles which can be glued onto a Rubik’s Cube!

Where a 3D printer really becomes powerful is when paired with an original 3D design.  People may come to your makerspace with their own, original products and prototypes to print and test for form and function.  Having access to a 3D printer at this stage in product development means faster iteration times and ultimately better products.

When you have 3D printers in your makerspace, you will definitely want to make all the cool things you print look even cooler. With the help from Polymaker's Polysher, an alcohol vaporization machine, you can make all your Polysmooth prints look super smooth and shiny. This is a really fast and effective way to smooth your prints compared to the traditional methods of sanding, bondo-ing, and painting. 

If you don't have the Polysher, other post-processing methods will work just fine. Here are some articles to help make your prints look cool, as well as the tools you'll need to succeed: 

Polymaker's Polysher - an alcohol vaporization machine

Resin-Based 3D Printers ($1295 kit - $3999 assembled)

For more advanced additive manufacturing needs, you may want to get a resin-based 3D printer for your makerspace.  The most popular kinds are SLA (Stereolithography) or DLP (Digital Light Processing).  Both are used for smaller, more detailed parts.

Resin printers are often used for producing medical and dental devices, and FDA-approved material is available for some.  Though these relatively low-cost machines cannot print metal themselves, they are often used by jewelers and manufacturers to create molds for metal casting. For more information on SLA printers, you can check out the Peopoly Moai or the MoonRay

The Peopoly Moai resin printer being used at a community makerspace 

3D Carvers and CNC Machines ($2500)

We’ve come a long way from high school woodshop class…or have we?  There are still lots of uses for CNC machines and 3D carvers if you want to make things out of wood, soft metals, plastic, wax, foam, and more.

While you may have a need to a large-format CNC machine, a more accessible way to get started with a CNC in your makerspace is with an enclosed, desktop version like the Inventables Carvey or Carbide3D Nomad.  These models were developed with the classroom and makerspace in mind, and the software is intuitive and easy to use for beginners.  They are clean, quiet, and have all of the utility of their big-brother machines.  CNC machines can make multiple parts fast, and can also be used as engravers for all sorts of projects.

Student's using the Invetables Carvey in their classroom's makerspace - find Carvey here

Other technology we’ve seen in makerspaces which you might want to read more about include sewing machines, laser cutters, lathes, and even hand tools and arts and crafts supplies.  Anything that will inspire creativity is fair game.

For more stories of how schools and libraries are using makerspaces and inspiration for projects, check out these resources:

There’s a reason “makerspace” is the hot buzzword in libraries and education right now, and that reason is engagement.  The future of making things is bright and vast, and everyone has their own access point.  Whether you want to make custom jewelry, cookie cutters, wooden puzzles, foam costume pieces, video game models, battle robots, remote control cars, drones, or the next breakthrough product for mass all starts with an idea and an outlet. The earlier you’ve got your outlet, the more impact you can have on our world.

Still have questions on how to get started?  Call or email the MatterHackers team for unbiased advice and discounts on what you might need for your makerspace.  If we don’t carry it, we’ll connect you with someone who does.  

We can’t wait to see what you make!