A self-proclaimed tinkerer and 2010 graduate of the Mechanical Engineering Masters Program at UW–Madison, Chris Meyer has always longed for a space beyond the university laboratory to experiment. “Schools don’t always provide spaces or even time for freeform exploration and the pursuit of projects that may not be part of the curriculum,” says Meyers. “Too, what happens after you graduate? There’s no real access to industrial equipment, or even the space to use it.”
In the pursuit of his dream of a publicaccess, free-form lab for fostering creativity and innovation, Meyer won the UW’s Nelson Institute Climate Leadership Challenge (known today as the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize), received second-place in the 2010 Burill Business Plan Competition, and took third-place in the 2010 Governor’s Business Plan Contest. The recognition and $39,000 in award money was nice, but the real prize for Meyer was the realization of his own small business innovation and incubation space called Sector67.
Often referred to as hackerspaces, workshops like Sector67 where people with common interests in technology, science, art, and culture meet to experiment and create, are popping up all over the world. Housed in warehouses or garages, hackerspaces are likely chock full of computer and fabrication equipment that helps foster creativity and encourages both independent and collaborative thinking. Often linked together through digital communities of networked websites and discussion threads, these collective workshops freely share information and resources in an effort to further collaborative innovation.
In Meyer’s hackerspace, the talent and intellect of all 45 members—it takes 67 members for the space to be financially self-sufficient, hence the name Sector67—combines to form a sustainable, environmentally friendly space for exploring ideas and producing something great.
Production is central to the mission of Sector67, which is based on providing members the tools to build, collaborate, and learn using the best available technology. And boy do they have a lot of tools. Located on the East Side of Madison in an old garage, Sector67 is bursting with tools, materials, and activity. By purchase, trade, or sometimes just plain luck, Meyer has acquired arc welders, band saws, drill presses, aluminum machining equipment, a room full of networked computers, a 3-D laser scanner (on loan from a local manufacturer), even a 3-D printer that generates objects from molten plastic. There are bins and bins of computer parts, wires, LED lights, fifty-gallon drums of liquid polymer, stacks of bowling balls, piles of scrap iron, copper, and lots of Styrofoam.
“We gotta move to a bigger space,” says Meyer, scratching his head and looking at the towering stacks of bins that line the walls of the 2400-square-foot facility. His lease is currently month to month, and a housing development plan might force Sector67 to move in November of 2012. Meyer is looking to find an even larger space closer to campus, a building with easier access for students and increased visibility, which he hopes will help with community support. “With a better space, we can expand our focus on education and maybe fund some small grants,” he says.
Education is a major component of Sector67, and currently over fifty classes are offered: 3-D printing with MakerBot, soldering, injection molding, sand casting, silk screening, computer circuit building and engineering, software design, Linux programming, even courses on how to write a startup business plans or create your own wind turbine. “We had a group of kids in here last week and they were really excited about modifying their bicycles before spring and summer began,” says Meyer. “[We showed them] how to transform their standard bike into an electric one.”
Sector67 members build close relationships with each other and program participants, using their mixed interests and abilities to offer advice and assistance to each other. A few recent projects nicely illustrate the value of spaces like Sector67 and show how Meyer is connecting Wisconsin-based innovators with the local and international hackerspace community, thereby fostering a new type of collaboration without borders.
For instance, Meyer and his team created and launched their hydrogen weather balloon experiment, named Apollo67, on November 20, 2011. The capsule—a Styrofoam-encased Android phone (which they surrounded with chemical hand-warmer packs to keep warm)—was returned to them four months later after a ten-year-old boy found it on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. According to the data found in the phone, which they had hacked to record altitude and distance along with aerial digital footage, Apollo67 reached a peak height of 17,913 meters (about 59,000 feet).
How they will use the hacked applicationin future weather balloon experiments is unknown, but Meyer points out that by turning experimentation into application, hackerspaces like Sector67 position themselves on the forefront of do-it-yourself product innovation.
One handy product to come directly from work at Sector67 is SMSMyBus, a mobile phone and e-mail application created by Greg Tracy that lets you track real time bus arrivals for Madison Metro buses. In many ways, SMSMyBus reflects a primary goal of Sector67: to continually improve our systems and find ways to better utilize our time.
Another intriguing program at Sector67 is a design and printing class that uses the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. Capable of creating an almost unlimited range of small objects (including parts for additional MakerBots) the machine uses an additive manufacturing process in which layers upon layers of hot plastic are fused together.
“MakerBot allows you to make new modifications and work quickly,” says Meyer. “Rather than waiting a week to receive ordered materials, in a couple of hours you can generate designs on the computer or download them from thingiverse.com and print them now.”
Inexpensive and easy to operate, the MakerBot 3-D printer could lead to massive change in the way we acquire our goods, and the way in which we deal with product emergencies (like a broken knob on a washing machine). Meyer notes how manufacturing products based on individual need—as opposed to mass production—can enhance efficiency and reduce wasteful consumption.
Could an influx of 3-D printers change our entire economy or create new business ideas and plans? Possibly, but Meyer is more concerned about creating an environment that will encourage children to think about— and be inspired by—science and technology. Confident that his incubator space will yield products that people have use for in the future, Meyer says that the new generation must experience more “hands-on learning” to better appreciate the process of discovery through experimentation.
“Today it is difficult for children to connect to what an engineer does. So giving them a space to … access all the tools they need to design and prototype anything they can imagine is important. They will also learn a lot by not being successful, which is the heart of experimentation. When they overcome these challenges, kids will be inspired to learn and experience more new ideas and technologies while having fun along the way.”
Visit hackerspaces.org to learn more or visit these Wisconsin-based organizations online: