Made in Baltimore: Creating a Mobile Makerspace

Cars Drones & Vehicles Education Workshop
Made in Baltimore: Creating a Mobile Makerspace

Over the course of planning our youth education programming, we’ve spent a lot of time in schools. Teachers have been uniformly excited about the idea of Open Works, particularly in ways it could expand opportunity for their students. Many were interested in becoming members themselves so they could sandbox around with new technologies and figure out how to integrate them into their curriculum.

That said, our local educators face many challenges. Pressed for time, boxed in by testing schedules, and lacking resources for field trips, teacher after teacher told us it would be hard to get their students down to Open Works. Even the schools closest to us – literally just a few blocks away – said it would be difficult to take an hour out of their day to do an enrichment activity. Even the simplest field trip requires extra supervision to walk students, a permission slip from parents to go off-site, and time taken away from other instruction.

At the end of last summer, shortly before construction started at Open Works, our team was able to attend the Fab Foundation’s 11th annual conference in Boston. We attended a breakout session by Nathan Pritchett, director of FabLab Tulsa, on the design and construction of his cutting-edge mobile fab lab. He gave his talk in the fab lab itself, a thirty-foot trailer that was deployed in a courtyard at MIT to create an outdoor classroom. One whole side opened up and all manner of digital fabrication equipment spilled out, each nestled in a custom-fabricated steel cart. After his presentation, Pritchett made all the design resources he used, from budgets to blueprints, available free on his website.

Interior of Fab Lab Tulsa mobile fablab taken at Fab11 conference, August, 2015. Photo by Will Holman.
Interior of Fab Lab Tulsa mobile fablab taken at Fab11 conference, August, 2015. Photo by Will Holman.

Back in Baltimore, we pored over his plans and began looking up other mobile fabrication models. We found the UpTruck, in Boston; STE(A)M Truck, in Atlanta; and SparkTruck, in California. Folks all over the country had recognized the problem with centralized makerspaces and decentralized audiences, and had developed programs that brought making out of the lab and into the classroom. Every one of them emphasized the need to tailor the curriculum to local needs, so we set about a listening tour.

The Neighborhood Design Center is a nonprofit architecture and planning group that has been doing community work in Baltimore for almost 50 years. We partnered up with NDC’s project manager Briony Hynson to conduct 6 community-input sessions with schools, community associations, and teacher groups. She designed some simple exercises that got people thinking about what they liked to make, what their community’s needs were, and how a mobile makerspace might close the gap between the two.

Open Works mobile design session in April. Photo by Will Holman.

Hynson engaged a volunteer architect, Sadie Dempsey, to design our mobile lab. We kicked off our first design meeting in late March, concurrent with our community-input sessions. We didn’t quite have the resources of FabLab Tulsa, so we settled on a simpler platform that could adapt to narrow city streets and a variety of community-engagement activities.

The Van

Instead of a full size travel trailer – expensive, hard to maneuver, difficult to park – we decided to go with a van. Most manufacturers now make a slope-nosed Euro-style work van of some sort; after some research, we settled on the Ford Transit 150. Make: sponsored a contest to build a maker-mobile in a Transit Connect a few years back, and a Twin Cities maker put together an impressive workshop on wheels. It has about 4’6″ of stand-up room, and a cargo area that can fit a little bit more than a full-size sheet of plywood. Standard features include plentiful tie-downs, LED interior lights, and rear doors that swing past 180 degrees. We are having the dealer add in a fold-up cargo ramp (originally configured for wheelchairs), vinyl graphics, security “hockey pucks” on the doors (for additional padlocks), and a security wall between the cab and the cargo area.

Side view of van with graphics on outside. Rendering by Sadie Dempsey.

The Carts

Dempsey designed a set of 9 modular plywood carts that can be manufactured on a CNC machine. They nestle perfectly into the footprint of the van, retained by ratchet straps and cushioned with rubber bumpers. Each has a white board back for ideation; space for a tote filled with consumables; and a flat platform on top for tools. Shelves built in above the cart area provide space for a fire extinguisher, signage, and additional maker supplies. Heavy-duty locking casters allow them to be deployed at a moment’s notice via the fold-up cargo ramp. That way, we can wheel the carts into a classroom or just deploy them outside for a street festival like Artscape. We’ll be sharing the design of these carts once we’ve made them over on our Instructables channel so you can make your own!

cart_iso copy

The Tools

We want Open Works Mobile to be able to demonstrate some basic digital fabrication technology, so we have made provisions for a 3D printer, a desktop CNC, and a very small laser cutter. Beyond that, most of the tools will be small and low-tech, for little hands that don’t have much experience. We’ll have the following:

+ Inventables X-Carve: highest-rated desktop CNC with a reasonably-sized work area. They’ve also worked out a new software, Easel, that makes for a very simple workflow for beginners.

+ Ultimaker 2 Extended: same 3D printer found in our home base, will simplify maintenance and consumable ordering.

+ Epilog Zing 16:
one of the smallest lasers on the market, it runs on very little power (for a laser cutter), weighs just 50 pounds, and sits comfortably on a desktop.

+ Dell XPS 15: a high-powered laptop that can handle CAD software and interface with all of our digital fabrication machines.

+ Phone and 4G hotspot: we’ll have a phone and wi-fi hotspot for navigation and go-anywhere internet so we won’t have to rely on public or host networks.

+ Hand power tools: a set of portable drills, impact driver, circular saws, and jigsaws that all run off the same batteries.

+ Hand tools: a set of small saws, hammers, measuring tapes, squares, and scissors.

+ Xantrex XPower 1500 amp power supply: much less noisy (and carbon-intensive) than a portable generator, this portable battery pack can run at least a portion of our equipment off-grid for a few hours.

The Curriculum

We are in the middle of hiring for a mobile makerspace coordinator, recruited through Baltimore Corps, a cohort of talented young leaders that are matched up with service-oriented jobs. Their first job will be researching best practices from the precedent projects above, and designing four or five 1-hour workshops that demonstrate each technology we have. Then, we’ll unveil the finished product at Artscape, Baltimore’s annual celebration of the arts, July 15th-18th. If you’re in the Baltimore area, come check it out!

In our next Made in Baltimore post, we’ll explore how Open Works Mobile and our home base can be platforms for job training.

Deploying the carts at a street fair. Rendering by Sadie Dempsey. (1)

Construction Update

Since the last post, we have:

1. Begun installing all of the cabinets and the reception desk.

2. Finished lighting upstairs.

3. Sealed the concrete floors.

4. Finished the supergraphic on the north side of the building.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Will Holman is the general manager of Open Works. A maker himself, he is the author of Guerilla Furniture Design, out now from Storey Publishing.

View more articles by Will Holman


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