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Tech-influenced DIY rolls into the region

Looking like a thin drizzle of vanilla soft-serve, white plastic filament streams slowly from the nozzle of the 3D printer. Benjamin Zandarski watches as it sets the base for an experiment of sorts.

A member of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, Zandarski has scanned a section of rock to see how deep an etching must be for the 3D printer to read it. If it works as well as he hopes, he could scan findings from digs and print 3D replicas for his co-members to ogle over, fondle and learn from, without having to be at the archaeological site.

It might be one of the more unusual projects seen by the folks in the makerspaces at Library 21c, the new north-end Pikes Peak Library District facility, but nothing is unexpected.

"Really, it's your imagination with this stuff," says Carolyn Coulter, PPLD's information technology and virtual services officer. "I had a soldier in there yesterday ... he was using the laser cutter to cut a military-stripes insignia that was gonna go on a placard or something they were doing, I think, for a military funeral."

Antique radio hobbyists are building replacement knobs. Business owners are etching nameplates. Whovians are piecing together entire Dalek squads. And at least one family, says PPLD creative computer commons manager Becca Cruz, has used the space for educational adventures.

"They had listened to, I think, Radiolab, and they had heard about this skeleton that had been found, the Taung child. They had the file online so you could go and download the file of the 3D scan that they had done of this skull and then print it."

"We should print that," Coulter comments. "We've done a lot of little stuff that we hand out for demos and whatnot. When we get the [MakerBot Replicator] Z18 up, we could build the whole Taung child!"

Both laugh.

"It's just such a streak of independence," Cruz adds, "to be able to go and make your own gizmo, rather than going and buying it."

With the opening of PPLD's makerspaces earlier this year — two average classroom-size rooms known as Make I and Make II — plus an inaugural Mini Maker Faire on tap for Oct. 18 (see "Faire warning") and a new Pikes Peak Makerspace at the Manitou Art Center, our community's forging tools to help design an innovative future.

While "maker" can refer to a creator of any sort, the "Maker Movement" today refers primarily to those involved in DIY that's heavily tech-influenced. Personal 3D printers, Arduino microcontrollers, Raspberry Pi single-board computers and the like are allowing individuals and groups to both explore for fun and for profit.

In "Making It," a feature published in January in the New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov writes that makers "include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand. ...

"Makers interested in honing their skills can take classes in well-equipped 'makerspaces,' where they can also design and manufacture their wares. Makers have their own widely read publication — the magazine Make — a cheerleader for 'technology on your time.' Then there are Maker Faires — exhibitions dedicated to the celebration of the D.I.Y. mindset which were pioneered by Make and have quickly spread across the country and far beyond, including a Maker Faire Africa."

A quick Google search of just one facet of the movement, 3D printing, shows it's, well, moving, and quickly. In just the past month, media outlets have reported on the military's work on bio-printed replacement skin for battle wounds; how a 3D-printed model of a heart tumor helped doctors decide how to treat their 16-year-old patient; and the world's first 3D-printed electric car.

In juxtaposition to the pristine and managed spaces at Library 21c, the Pikes Peak Makerspace feels like a window into a creator's mind — there's a rabbit-run of rooms, a hodge-podge of tools and equipment, piles of ideas tottering in each corner. Eight-foot-tall, in-progress paintings, the work of MAC studio artists, lean against some walls, and just outside, five people hammer away at a tiny house they're construsting in the parking lot.

The facility is in its soft opening phase, with plans to launch fully Jan. 1. And the journey here has been quick.

About a year and a half ago, explains organizer Chris Vestal (who also owns two local businesses, multimedia studio ConceptVision and the motorcycle product-producing MotoMinded), this all started when he put together a local 3D printing Meetup group. Those folks, at the end of each meeting, kept talking about having a space they could use for show-and-tell and bigger projects. So six months later, he formed a Meetup group specifically focused on that.

"The goal was to get, first, a downtown location," Vestal, 43, says. But the same day he and co-organizer George Ott were to sign a lease, Natalie Johnson, executive director at the Manitou Art Center, reached out to them. "She for weeks had been researching making [areas at the MAC] into a Makerspace, but didn't want to run it. ... I'd known her for years, and I had no idea what was here."

Turns out, he says, the MAC was already "90 percent" there. It even had a kids' area, known as the E11 Creative Workshop, a colorfully welcoming studio chock full of paints and crayons, beads and building blocks, and hammers and screwdrivers for tiny hands. What was missing, he says, was more tools (for adults) and some finesse.

When the downtown lease fell through and Vestal grasped Johnson's ultimate goal of turning the large event center in the building at 515 Manitou Ave., into a full-on makerspace, he was completely on board.

"That day," he says, laughing, the project "was renamed from the Colorado Springs Makerspace to the Pikes Peak Makerspace, since our first location was in Manitou."

Johnson says this shift at the MAC is about responding to an ever-growing list of requests for additional accessibility to equipment that most people don't have the space or finances to own. Even though the center has been hosting about 45 events a month, she says, those events haven't been generating much money. More importantly, an arts center's goal really isn't to hold weddings and the like. So, she says, "you adjust to the needs of your community."

In just a few months, similar needs have become evident at Library 21c. The facility officially opened June 21, and between then and the end of August, nearly 500 people attended the hour-long Makerspace Safety 101 class required for anyone interested in tackling activities there. Currently, staff members facilitate about 10 of these sessions a month, along with sewing machine demos, and laser cutter and 3D printing/scanning one-on-ones. (See "Hive of activity" for upcoming events.)

Already, there are backlogs. It can take a few weeks to get a slot in a 101 class; about half of the demos and workshops between now and mid-October have wait lists; and getting access to a 3D printer depends on the number of projects already on tap and how long each project takes. (A piece about the size of a standard red brick, like the previously mentioned rock replica, takes about seven hours to print — and that's if nothing goes wrong.)

"People are very excited about it, so we're trying to meet the demand as quickly as we can," Cruz says, "but with machinery and staff, we have some slowdown occasionally."

"I was expecting usage," Coulter adds. "I'm delighted at the level of usage that we're getting." In the near future, she's hoping to secure the finances to add more equipment, including a 3D printer at the Sand Creek library branch. She also wants to put together maker kits (like robotics and circuit-board projects) that could circulate throughout the district and allow librarians, even those without much space, to do programming at the different branches.

So, yes, patrons may have to wait a while for some action, and have to watch staff use some of the equipment, versus doing the work themselves. But it's worth noting that all services are free to those with active PPLD library cards, aside from minimal charges for consumables like 3D printer filament.

Focused more on offering specialized training and on-site access to trade experts, Vestal says Pikes Peak Makerspace, a newly minted Pikes Peak Community Foundation nonprofit, will run on a "gym membership" type of payment system. By Jan. 1, the space should hold five electronics labs, five metal welding/cutting stations, a full gamut of metalworking tools and benches, a laser cutter, a hobby-level CNC milling machine (the subtractive equivalent of a 3D printer), and project and material storage. And, Vestal adds, "being I'm the 3D printer guy, hopefully we'll be sick with 3D printers."

The breakdown of costs can be found at pikespeakmakerspace.org, but long-term options will generally be in the $50-per-month range, and full memberships include a variety of discounts at material shops around town. Currently his roster of expert instructors includes Scooter Wadsworth of Gearmunk, CodeBaby's Hunt Hodgkins, welder Mike Decker, photographer Allison Daniell and Ott, an electrical engineer.

Vestal hopes to target a wide range of users, but in particular those in the start-up community. Lisa Tessarowicz of Epicentral Coworking sits on the Pikes Peak Makerspace advisory board, and Vestal says Epicentral has been key in helping build community connections. "I think we both know that something like a Makerspace is kind of a critical need for the start-up community ... That's an important leap for me — not just community education, fun kids' projects, fun things like that, but be tightly linked with the start-up community."

He speaks from experience on that.

"MotoMinded was an idea on Friday, and I had the company launched and selling products on Monday," he explains.

His first product? A 3D-printed, dirt bike-attachable pillbox, for holding a spare injector, micro-filters and O-rings. Today he sells these internationally, along with about 20 other 3D-printed items for two-wheelers, including helmet brackets for LED lights, cylinder guards and cable guides.

"My goal is to have a place, that the Makerspace is a place where you can come here one day with an idea, prototype it, work it out, and launch your company. We have the resources for that," he says, adding, "I hope someday we'll have a little retail out here, out front, and downtown."

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