As the world becomes ever more automated, the MakerLab at the Powerhouse Science Center wants to make sure Four Corners residents have the opportunity to learn to use high-tech tools like 3-D printers and the opportunity to invent, craft and discover new passions.
The MakerLab opened this month in the education building at the Powerhouse. It’s part of a larger movement across the country that started in about 2006; hundreds of similar communal workshops that help foster businesses and ideas have opened across the country.
“There’s a lot of economic success stories that pop up out of makerspaces. People come up with a prototype idea, network with some other people and a company starts,” MakerLab founder Ryan Finnegan said.
Five years ago, Finnegan, Branden Walter and Alexi Carey started working on the Durango MakerLab by building a maker culture, holding talks to explain what the educational opportunity is and how it could boost the community’s economy.
In 15 years, many jobs will require knowledge of robotics and artificial intelligence, and a makerspace can provide that education for kids and adults.
“We don’t yet have too much of that technology in our schools, although it is transitioning. So we like to think we’ll function as an augmented educational opportunity,” Finnegan said.
In 2015, the founders held a series of camps for kids to do hands-on projects. In spring 2016, they decided the Powerhouse was the best place to start the MakerLab, and so it became a branch of the larger nonprofit.
It seemed natural that kids could be inspired by the science exhibits at the Powerhouse and then develop their curiosities at the MakerLab by doing hands-on projects, Finnegan said.
The MakerLab received $100,000 from an anonymous donor through the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado and $10,000 from the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance to get started. It is fundraising to improve the space and award scholarships.
The economic development alliance decided to fund the MakerLab after hearing from consultants that it could spark more of the creative manufacturing companies that have already been successful in the area by providing entrepreneurs space to create prototypes and network, said Executive Director Roger Zalneraitis.
“We’re excited. We’re proud of what they’ve done,” he said.
The MakerLab already has attracted people from across the region, and it expects to serve all skill levels.
“We want to see a diverse community here. We don’t want to see just middle-aged men,” MakerLab Director Brian McDonagh said.
For those who need it, the MakerLab will offer basic training about how to use the machinery and, in many cases, associated software.
“We want to make sure that they come in and have a really positive experience,” McDonagh said.
The MakerLab has a room dedicated to designing and testing circuit boards for robotics and other simple systems. It also has a prototyping lab with larger tools, such as a table saw, laser cutter and a computer numerical control mill. The mill is an automated machining tool that can be used to make small parts and projects as complex as an engine block.
The declining price for technology, such as 3-D printers, which are available at the lab, is part of what has driven the popularity in makerspaces.
“These technologies have gotten so cheap, it’s really made the inventive world accessible again,” Finnegan said.
More traditional crafting options are also available – there is a room with industrial sewing machines, Popsicle sticks, hot glue guns and other supplies.
McDonagh and Finnegan plan to teach some classes, but as the MakerLab grows, members – people from all walks of life – will teach classes based on the demand of other members.
So far, welding classes are in demand, but those classes will happen off-site.
Members’ interest will also determine how the MakerLab expands and what tools it purchases in the future.
The lab expects it might be able to accept 80 members at a time, depending on how often they use the space.
Similar to an athletic club, people can a pay daily, monthly or an annual fee to use the lab at anytime, although those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
For kids, the MakerLab plans to have a free club, after-school programs and summer camps.
Once a month on a Saturday, the MakerLab plans to have a free community build day that will be sponsored by different companies.
The lab holds a maker mingle for people to tour the facility and network from 4 to 8 p.m. Fridays.