a visit to makespace, cambridge

I got the opportunity to accompany Martin Raynsford to Makespace in Cambridge for their weekly Sunday morning “Family Makers” session where he was running a useless machine workshop and giving usa chance to show off our Blacknose A3 Laser Cutter good practice for Edinburgh Mini Maker Faire this weekend and the UK Maker Faire the weekend after.

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Makespace is in some buildings which are part of the University and it’s just a couple of minutes walk from Kings College and the centre of the city. One of the founders, Steve, gave me a tour. He explained that Makespace could remain in the present location for another two years but after that they’d need to move out. I was told by a member (though it might have been speculation) that the current home for Makespace was very valuable development land. It being a non-listed building amongst some of the best architecture in Europe (in my opinion) it’s a prime spot to pop an office or a mall or even a more useful building for the university.

The setup is very clean and well organised compared to most Hackspaces, but then they purposely called themselves Makespace and certainly the people I spoke to had a “dirty” and “dark” perception of what a “Hackspace” is. Having said that they still have some similar problems to other Hackspaces with stuff all over the place and members needing project storage and wanting to fill the space with, well… useful things (crap).

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Unlike most Hackerspaces I’ve visited they have a lot of very high end equipment and have had corporate sponsorship and donations to get them off the starting line. That’s not to diminish from the contributions of the 50 or so founders shown on the logo above. The company sponsors are also logo’d and linked at the top of their website. I was told they currently have about 200 members all paying around £40 month for 24 hours access and as usual it’s about a 20/80 % split of highly active and less active members. Also they don’t tend to have pledge drives for equipment, instead utilising their considerable monthly income (£8000 a month if their membership fee and number of members is an indicator) into getting good tools and keeping them running. Some of the founders I spoke to didn’t know who how much the rent was but described it as “peppercorn” which implied a token small rent. They do pay for the services they receive which I assume to be power, heating and internet as well as web domains and insurance and the like.

It being Cambridge I sort of assumed that there would be a load of Cambridge University undergraduates. No, said a member, students can’t afford £40 a month. Is £40 a month expensive? I can’t decided. I think access to all the good tools they have in the clean and (relatively) well organised environment of Makespace in central Cambridge IS worth that yes. “It’s the same as a high end phone contract.” said one member who preferred to avoid the “Gym Membership” analogy.

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They have a good setup including a main working room with Makerbot Replicator 2, A1 sized CO2 laser cutter, small Rolland CNC mill, vacuum former, glass working kiln and electronics bench. Next door they have a dirty workshop with large CNC router, 3 axis mill, wood lathe, pillar drill, band saw, sanders, chop saw and many others smaller hand tools. They have a sizable “MEAT ROOM” or class room which is currently under debate to be changed though it seems well appointed for teaching. Additionally they had a quite big locked room for valuables and servers and the like. My understanding is that members don’t have access to this room. They had a room called “Cake Space” which was their kitchen and tuck-shop and another room they called the “cafe”. The natural light in the space is superb as they have a traditional saw tooth type factory roof.

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I was made very welcome and am generally impressed by Cambridge Makespace. To me looking in from the outside, Makespace has always felt like a much more corporately minded “go-it-alone” type of Hackerspace (if you could describe it as such). When being told by members that the “leaders” are “very busy software types” with little time to interact with other Hackerspaces and the foundation in general and also seeing the locked room for the “valuables” and no-one seemingly knowing how much the rent is I had the fleeting idea that the “members” are sort of “other” from the organisers and maybe there isn’t the same level of buy in. Having said that it does make for a better run and seemingly more organised space with the right tools in the right places at the right time and not everything done on pennies from twine and sticky tape. I think the way that Makespace was resourced, founded and funded presents some very interesting learning opportunities for maker and hacker spaces (whatever you want to call them) to learn how to scale into something realistic safe and sustainable. I’d very much like to see some of the leaders/founders interacting more with the UK Hackspace Foundation rather than distancing themselves from it. I am certain we can learn a lot together. One thing that sits uncomfortably with me is that they used the name “Makespace” as a one off only us name. That is to say they aren’t “Cambridge” Makespace, one of many Makespaces but just “Makespace” the one the only. London Hackspace isn’t just “Hackspace” one of one… it is London Hackspace one of many.. do what we do they say. Makespace.org points to Makespace, Hackspace.org.uk points at the Foundation page of all space (including Makespace).

Another thought occurred to me, at 200+ members and with probably 5000 square feet of space available Makespace is probably the 2nd largest UK Hackspace after London (800+ members about 6000 square feet) though because they don’t really interact with the UK Hackspace Foundation or other Hackspaces as such they have never really been on my radar. Suddenly one day they appeared but didn’t brag in my face about it. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

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Most amazingly for me was the “lost property shelf” in most hackspaces (or makerspaces) stuff is pervasive and everywhere. Put it this way, put a thing down on a table no one will move it unless they know that it shouldn’t be there. I felt that Cambridge Makespace had the advantage of keeping itself above mess rather than trying to pull itself out of it like most hackspaces. Their members box system is a hackspace organisers dream. All the boxes are strong, good quality, east to see and not over filled. Furthermore hardly anything shoved beside and on top of them. Use of brought in BIG DUG racking helps considerably.

My favorite room in the space was the “TROPHY ROOM” or store room. A room dedicated to junk and donations. An Aladdin’s cave that contains the stuff both being worked on and up for grabs. With good quality racking it was quite good fun to go in a poke about. An Aladdin’s cave of stuff is something I’ve wanted at Nottingham Hackspace for a couple of years now. I want to contain the junk in a tidy away area specifically for stuff, not stop it. Right now at Nottingham we’ve stuff all over the place, where ever you lay your stuff, that’s it’s home. It’s a tough challenge for a community space to face up to.

They are doing other things very well too. They have a machine at the entrance that you can scan your RFID tag onto and it will print you a NAME STICKER so everyone can see you name. It’s a fun way to get people to actually share their names. I have a terrible memory and at Nottingham I know so many faces but forget the names… it might stop people calling me DOM (which I really don’t like) if my name badge said DOMINIC and we had a rule to use the name on the badge.

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Makespace has a bi-weekly open “come and see the space” sessions you can book into here on their meetup pages. These open house events take place on Tuesdays. They also have other open house events like RPi programming you can catch it all from their meetup page or their website.

In conclusion I was impressed if not a little sad that this excellent community is a bit insular. It takes two to stop somewhere being insular though and I’d really like to learn a lot more about the model that Makespace has forged. I was made very welcome indeed and saw glimpses of the same problems that Hackspaces face (bikeshedding, doing everything on the cheap, wanting to hack every solution, the worry about webcams and anonymous identity stuff etc etc). I’d be very interested to hear comments or questions or corrections in the section below.

6 thoughts on “a visit to makespace, cambridge

  1. Hi Dominic,

    Glad you enjoyed visiting! I’m one of the founder members, we’re definitely not insular by preference – if we are at all it’s by default. I actually got involved with makespace in the first place after seeing Nottinghack’s tent village at EMF a couple of years ago and feeling sad we didn’t have something similar here so there may be connections lurking beneath the surface!

    I wonder whether the branding (makespace vs cambridge hackspace) made it easier for us to get corporate sponsorship? That’s just speculation on my part, but the perception of whoever you’re asking for cash is as important as the perception of the community that ends up using it. I personally don’t think of hackspaces as particularly dark and nasty, but maybe some people (and companies) do?

    Personally I think of makespace as a hackspace, just with a different name. We were the ‘super happy dev club’ before makespace existed though, so perhaps we just like being different 🙂

    Tom

  2. Most things in Makespace aren’t that different from a Hackspace. Everything is still organised by the members and there aren’t different levels of membership that give you different rights.

    The directors (there is 3 of them) have some overruling powers – but those are mainly used to ensure health and safety. They also control the treasury – meaning they are signing off (or refusing) the purchase of any items that were chosen by the members. They have also sorted out the whole legal site – including (among many others) the lease for the place (there is a lease contract with some rules dictated by the university – but no or only a symbolic fee as far as I know), insurance and health-and-safety rules (that is probably where Makespace differs most from other Hackspaces).

    To me the biggest difference is probably not the one between Makespace and Hackspaces in general – it’s between “big” space and smaller spaces. Having 200 members means it’s not really a tight group of like-minded people. There is probably some core group – but it still feels different. The benefit is of course that it is much easier to afford stuff like big shiny machines.

    1. Thanks for your comment! You say “insurance and health-and-safety rules (that is probably where Makespace differs most from other Hackspaces).” but perhaps you mean between large and small spaces? How do you feel there is a difference in this?

  3. Interesting and thought-provoking article, thanks. One small correction: it’s a MakerBot Replicator 2X not a MakerBot Replicator 2.

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