Monday, July 28, 2008

Signs of UK Co-operative and Open-Access workshops

I have been a little quiet lately but that doesn't mean that I haven't been productive in my research.

I located a pay-as-you go workshop in London. Based in Acton, 'MakingRoom' looks rather good. The website gallery depicts and large and modern carpentry workshop that is available for use at prices starting from £90 per day. The bias certainly seems to be towards wood working and hence I don't think there is any opportunity for the milling of metal, welding, 3D printing etc. Furthermore the price is quite steep for casual non-commercial users. However it is promising that such endeavours have already sprouted on this side of the Atlantic.

With these discoveries in mind I thought it worth continuing my exploration of London based workshop facilities. I recently returned to the message boards and posted requests for information regarding UK based co-operative and open-access workshop facilities to both dorkbotlondon and Makezine forums. From the start I haven't expected the Makezine post to yield much information as it is - as you would expect - US centric. And why not, I'm rather impressed with the organization of the US Maker movement.

However, I hoped that dorkbotlondon has it's collective finger on the pulse of London and so far it hasn't been a total disappointment. A couple of members have responded to me and one made me aware of the SomethingLabs studio in Bethnal Green. Along with desk rental the space includes an 'occasional use' workshop. I have sent along an inquiry to find out whether they'd be supportive of projects with an engineering and workshop bias. Interestingly one of SomethingLabs residents is - a European distributor of the Arduino platform.

On a related note I'd like to see the UK circulation statistics for Make magazine in UK regions to get an idea on the size and distribution of the UK Maker community. Last time I looked, Make was on sale in WHSmiths, so along with 'Canal Boat' it's apparently gone mainstream in England - another good sign for UK Makers. Incidentally - I do like canals and canal boats although I have never bought the publication ;-)

My next steps will be to check out what kind of workshop spaces are available to rent in London although I'm quite certain they'll be out of this individuals price range...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fame on StreetView

This weekend I was enjoying a nice stroll along the New river walk in Islington. When I came to the eastern end of the path at St. Pauls Road I decided to take in the view of the street by peering over the railings. As I did this, to my surprise, the Google Street view car dashed past before disappearing down a road on the right hand side. The cars roof top cluster - that contains many cameras, laser range scanners, and presumably GPS antennas - had lots of LEDs blipping away which leads me to hope that my visage was captured and will shortly make it onto the UK version of Street View - albeit blurred. Watch this space...

TechShop review

I found a good review of TechShop here. They really seem to have a nice workshop with some very cool tools - if only they'd open one in Hackney so that I could build a robot army!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Skills development void

With my current resolve to do something constructive with my hands I decided that I'd like to get some practical training and develop some skills using CNC machines and perhaps some welding. Being aware of hotcourses and floodlight I thought it'd be fairly easy to locate a suitable evening course at a local community college.

My searching however was fruitless, yielding only a welding course at Newham college. Instead I turned to the 'City and Guilds' website to investigate relevant qualifications that they offer in this field. Sure enough I found a course that looked perfect: 'Performing Engineering Operations'. It seemed to have a nice mix of machining and welding - quite exciting. Next I needed to find a course provider who would offer this as a part time evening class. A quick postcode search at City and Guilds indicated that the City and Islington College - right on my doorstep - was registered to provide this course. Excellent...

Unfortunately it turns out that although the college is registered to provide this course it does not currently offer it to students. In fact the majority of colleges registered for 'Performing Engineering Operations' do not actually provide it. Furthermore, the institutions that did only offer it on a full time basis so I'm out of luck there.

I've tried to find alternatives by posting requests for information on both the Maker forum and the sci.engr.mech newsgroup but there as been little information arriving. An educational professional has explained that my difficulty in finding a course is due to the reluctance of the govenrment to provide opportunities for learning that do not lead to a qualification. However, this does not quite explain why I could have my pick of Jewelry manufacturing courses but can't find anyone to teach me how to use a CNC machine.

My next port of call will be the Open University but I find it unlikely that I'll be able to learn practical engineering skills by mail!

UK Maker scene

These past few days I've been trying to distill my ideas for an urban communal engineering workshop. I've uncovered a little bit more information regarding the Maker scene in the UK and while it's not exactly as burgeoning as that in the US, it's certainly established. My web wanderings first lead me to the Make forums where I became quickly impressed and then rapidly jealous of the stateside Maker Faires. These events bring together like minded people for home brew technology demos, workshops, and exhibitions in an informal fun setting - a fairground! Why can't there be something like this in the UK? Well it turns out there is...

In one particular Make forum thread there was two year year long gripe by UK Makers about the lack of UK based meetings like the stateside Maker Faires. This was the first indication that there are UK Makers out there. But more importantly one of the posts referred to the London branch of dorkbot as a possible alternative. I had heard of dorkbot many years ago - probably when I was reading NTK which I believe is an affiliate. The group states that if consists of 'People doing strange things with electricity' and brings together artists, engineers, and geeks for creative endeavours. The group seems to have been running for seven years now and they've had over 55 meetings - so I feel particularly foolish for not getting involved earlier on.

Aside for the monthly city meets dorkbotlondon is this year holding DorkCamp2008 - that seems to be a small scale event similar to a Maker Faire - at a campsite in Dorking (hehe). This is the third year the camp has been running and the initial schedule looks pretty cool. However, due to prior commitments I won't be able to attend this year :-(

Anyway, I've been reasonably encouraged by my findings and will certainly try to make it along to the next dorkbotlondon meet in August. Hopefully this means that there will be some other London based individuals who might like to get together to use a London based shared engineering workshop - like TechShop but on a [much] smaller scale.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Recently I described my wish for an inner city community based workshop resource. This would enable those of us living in limited city abodes to get workshop time on some cool machinery and thus exercise some creativity. Well it looks like something similar is already advancing well in the US and on a typically American scale too. TechShop offers its members shop-time on a wide range of equipment on a subscription basis. Furthermore it also offers classes and training to ensure that tools are used safely.

The range of the equipment is impressive and includes tools for automotive repairs, laser etching, plasma cutting, electronic engineering, and sheet metal work. Access to tools can be booked and memberships are managed with RFID tags. Memberships are reasonably priced at around £600 a year - which I personally think is pretty good - I'd rather join TechShop than some Soho members club!

The question is: When will TechShop cross the Atlantic?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Maker shop

I recently had an idea for we creative urbanites. I love living in a city but unless I happen to suddenly come into a lot of cash I'll be confined to a flat. That pretty much rules out any kind of shed, garage, or workshop where I can tinker or play with heavy machinery without upsetting my neighbours. And surely there are so many others in the same position - unable to exercise their mechanically creative bent due to lack or tools and a place to keep and operate those tools.

The same is true of exercise equipment. But thankfully - if you are so inclined - you can join a gym. So why not organize some kind of membership based city workshop? The idea would be to get together and house a collection of workshop tools in a suitable inner city location. Member subscriptions would pay for the operation and upkeep of the workshop. The cost could be split across many members who would have access to facilities beyond the reach of even the best equipped personal sheds and such! Makers living in even the tiniest studios would have a place to create and construct and the community feel would no doubt generate an excellent creative environment that would encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills.

Of course there would be some hurdles - health and safety would be a huge concern. In the gym would this is tackled by having inductions and trained supervisors. Could we not have similar in our workshop clubs?

I also think that there are a few different models of operation that we could adopt:

  • Commerical operation - for profit, income from membership subscriptions.

  • Not for profit collective - a group of individuals get together and run the club for the benefit of themselves

  • Community project - Involve the local community, make links with technical colleges etc., gather funding from the local council.

  • or perhaps a mix or some of the above?

Now I should mention that this idea is not wholly original - there was an episode of CSI where a group of combat robot enthusiasts operated a similar venture. In this instance one of the characters gave shop time to friends (and enemies as the plot required). But don't let that put you off.

OpenTech 2008

I recently attended the OpenTech 2008 conference at ULU. The quality of the content and speakers was very high and I very much enjoyed the three sessions that I attended even though some of the topics weren't quite what I had originally expected. I was particularly keen to hear what Nick Black had to say about OpenStreetMap - a project that I last looked at when it was in it's infancy. Well it has certainly come along way and some of the maps are quite beautiful when compared to their commercial counterparts. I particularly like the fine grained details that some users have added such as walking paths, cycle routes, and of course pubs. When I got home I immediately uploaded some of my own GPS track data from my travels in New Zealand, and Tibet - both apparently in regions not already mapped by the project. I hope to create some street and path data from the tracks when I have increased my competency with the map creation tools to a suitable standard.