With the recent news about TechShop closing and the more recent news of TechShop reopening, I’ve been following the discussions around what TechShop did right, what TechShop did wrong, and what it should do in the future. All of this is colored by my experience at Milwaukee Makerspace over the last 6 years, including being on the Board of Directors and helping to run the space. I should note that Milwaukee Makerspace is a community-oriented space for adults and focuses on providing a space and equipment for people to learn new skills and make things.

TechShop always came across to me as a more “commercial” space where people who wanted access to tools to create products could go to use the machines. While some spaces do cater to entrepreneurs and people making commercial products, other spaces are not equipped and not as friendly to commercial activity. At Milwaukee Makerspaces we’ve had a loose set of rules/guidelines for people producing commercial work. It’s basically follows the “Don’t be a Dick” rule: don’t hog machines, don’t blow through consumables, and make donations to help cover the cost and maintenance of machines.

There’s a common explanation of a makerspace as “It’s like a health club, except instead of treadmills and exercise bikes we have tables saws and laser cutters!” This falls apart when you think about the equipment in a health club versus the equipment in a makerspace. While someone might use an elliptical machine for 30 minutes, or maybe a treadmill for an hour, people can easily use a laser cutter for hours at a time, and can tie up a 3D printer for multiple hours very easily. While health clubs may have a dozen ellipticals and treadmills, most makerspaces may have only one or two laser cutters and 3D printers.

Besides the issue of how many machines and their availability, expectations are an issue. One of our members, in giving an orientation to new members said “Everyone is here to have fun, just remember that and you’ll have a good time”. While some do believe that to be true, there are definitely members who consider the space an extension of their business, and their “machine shop” to use as needed to create products. (This isn’t to suggest people running a business can’t also be awesome members, but there’s always a chance of some conflict due to expectations.)

So what are expectations? We’ve had members who make demands to the Board of Directors (who volunteer to help run the space) and typically we explain that “no, you are not a customer, you are a member like everyone else”. As a member of Milwaukee Makerspace you can expect being able to get into the building (if you paid your dues) and well, to some degree, not much else. There’s no guarantee the machine you want to use when you show up will be available, or working, or in some cases, still in the building! You have to be okay with that. It’s how we operate.

I’ve read a few accounts of TechShop members (customers?) making demands, and having expectations that since they are paying X amount per month, it entitles them to Y amount of Z. Some of these people do indeed run businesses, and TechShop should provide them with what is promised. Maybe? I mean, I don’t know what exactly is promised by TechShop when you are a member/customer.

I’m not going to say that one way is right and one way is wrong, because there’s room for all sorts of models. A friend of mine joined Milwaukee Makerspace and was hoping to use the CNC router for a project. When he joined the CNC router was down for repairs, and then he wasn’t able to attend the training class, and then months had passed and he didn’t get to do his project. (He told me he totally understands that everyone is a volunteer and he wasn’t upset it didn’t work out. All good.) I do hear this quite a bit. Someone joins and gets really excited, but then has to get trained on the equipment they want to use, and that takes time, and then they get frustrated with the process. To be fair, I’m sure other spaces have this figured out, and maybe we don’t… I don’t know.

Occasionally I wish we had a TechShop-type place in Milwaukee I could send people to when all they want to do is get access to a machine to make something, and maybe be able to take a class fairly quickly to learn a new skill. My friend who failed to use the CNC router said he called a few places about having the job done and it was way over his budget. This is where I see the TechShop-style place fitting in. I have no delusion that Milwaukee Makerspace (with nearly 300 members) is for everyone. There are some people who will want something different in their “makerspace experience”, and I respect that.

At this point I should mention Hammerspace in Kansas City. Dave Dalton is always quick to point out that a space can be both things, a community makerspace and a commercial entity with staff and the ability to do jobs for hire. So yes, there are many models, and some work better than others in various ways.

I’ve talked to others about how their spaces run, and there are so many variables that it may be difficult to replicate something that works in one place to other places. Cities and people and culture are so different depending on where you go, as are… expectations.

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