Tech savvy ‘makers’ find new home in Milwaukee

Several cities across the country are tapping into their technological elite and opening Hacklabs, Hackerspaces or Makerspaces in their communities. These locations are loosely defined as member-based facilities where individuals interested in computers, technology, science and all things digital can meet to collaborate, work on ideas, inventions, new applications and new media strategies.

The Milwaukee Makerspace, combines the traditional hackerspace theology with a custom fabrication lab representing Milwaukee’s heavy manufacturing history.

“You look at what Milwaukee needs, retraining, retooling and innovation and we’ve got that all here in the Makerspace,” said Michael Diedrick, one of the 13 founding members of the Milwaukee Makerspace. “We’ve connected the dots and brought together what other cities have done for ‘hackers,’ and combined it with Milwaukee’s rich industrial history.”

The Milwaukee Makerspace houses a wide variety of fabrication and technology equipment including an electronics lab, CNC mills, laser and plasma cutters, welders, woodworking tools, power tools, machine lathes, a variety of hand tools and a stockpile of random parts for just about anything, Diedrick said.

“Many of the people involved in the Milwaukee Makerspace are highly skilled, highly trained and tech savvy people who, before our space was created, would travel to Chicago, New York or other cities for that engagement with other makers,” Diedrick said.

According to Royce Pipkins, founding member and president of Milwaukee Makerspace, the hackerspace and makerspace movement is happening now. High profile hackerspaces currently exist in more than 150 cities in the country including Kansas City, Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York, Chicago and many cities overseas including London, Dublin and Berlin, he said.

“We’ve all been involved in other spaces like this in other cities where we’ve lived,” Pipkins said. “When we came to Milwaukee, we realized we really needed that interaction and that space here.”

The Milwaukee Makerspace is located in the Chase Commerce Center, 3073 S. Chase Ave., Building 34, Milwaukee. In addition to the 13 founding members, the Milwaukee Makerspace currently has around 20 additional paying members and even more people coming and going for specific projects, Pipkins said.

“The things people are doing here or creating here will probably shock most people,” said Tom Gralewicz, founding member and vice president and treasurer of Milwaukee Makerspace. “We’ve done plug-in electric cars, robots, even our CNC mills were built by two of our members using spare parts we had. Our key card access system, complete with closed circuit television cameras was custom built inside the Makerspace by Royce.”

Many members utilize the Makerspace as a place to make things they always dreamed about making, Gralewicz said.

“Many of us have always been tech geeks and we’re fascinated with building things and taking things apart,” he said. “The Makerspace gives us the opportunity to make some of those ideas reality by giving us the space, the tools and the collective resources to build those things.”

Gralewicz has created, among other things, a customized battery charger. Other members are working on their own electric cars, robots or customized solutions for their own needs.

According to Pipkins, members are allowed to utilize the tools and the facility to run their business if they want to.

“We actually encourage it,” Pipkins said. “We’d love to see more companies grow out of the use of the space.”

Pipkins and Gralewicz plan to either commercialize some of their inventions or make the plans for building them available in open source.

“The maker community is very tight knit and it’s grown because of the give back culture,” Gralewicz said. “If someone figures out how to build something, they can choose to make it available on an open source website for free or for a nominal fee. Then anyone can go there and download the plans to build it.”

The designs for the customized CNC machines were open source documents, Gralewicz said.

The Milwaukee Makerspace recently held its grand opening day event, but also hosts workshop trainings, open labs, classes and events during the week. Makerspace meetings are open to the public and are held every Tuesday at 7 p.m. The electronic lab is open to the public every Thursday at 7 p.m., Diedrick said.

“Open meetings and lab hours are a great way for people to get introduced to the Milwaukee Makerspace, meet the makers and see what we have to offer,” Diedrick said.

In order to become a member of the Milwaukee Makerspace, individuals need to be nominated, Pipkins said.

“It’s just a way for us to get to know people before we just let them in and give them access to the resources available at the Makerspace,” Pipkins said. “No one has ever been turned away, but it gives us a chance to meet someone at an open meeting or lab before we give them the keys to the building.”

Once a nomination has been made, memberships are available for $80 a month or at discounted rates if purchased in bulk.

Purchasing a membership gives individuals 24/7 access to the space, one-on-one project development, group critiques, access to all tools, equipment and parts for their projects, Pipkins said.

“It’s a great atmosphere, both socially and in productivity,” Pipkins said. “If you are working on a project and you run into a snag, chances are there is someone here who can help. That’s the great part about the Makerspace, we have so much knowledge in one location that it allows everyone to work through the snags a lot faster than if we were all doing this individually at home.”

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