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A workbench for East London

At present there's no community-driven workshops for creative individuals in East London, only workshops focused on commercial customers. We'd like to change that. And if you're going to try to do something, you should aim to do the best you can.

We've been looking at the issues that can creep up and hope we can head them off from the start by adjusting the model and planning ahead.

The goals

  • To enable people to explore new skills, tools, items and materials.
  • To help them to develop and produce their own items, products and processes.
  • To provide the tools for effective repair, reuse, design, fabrication and assembly.
  • To help people to do this to a high standard.
  • To provide material support to other good causes.
  • To promote a safe, inclusive and respectful community, within and without.
  • To do so in a secure and reliable manner.

How to achieve them

After a lot of discussion our conclusions were that a workshop focussing on building material things, with semi or unskilled users, needs an attendant staff.

An attendant checks tools out to users, advising on the correct tools for the job. They check the tools for wear and damage when they're returned, meaning tools are kept at peak availability. An attendant can be trained in health & safety, ensuring people don't injure themselves by failing to take proper safety precautions. An attendant ensures someone with first-aid knowledge is always present for when accidents happen. An attendant provides a recognised authority in the workshop environment, to enforce policies on acceptable behaviour and to moderate conflict.

Opening hours

Having an attendant also means set opening hours. 24hr access means it can't be staffed the whole time, and unstaffed periods would become the time when disruptive people can get away with breaking the rules.

From the survey conducted in January, minimum hours should aim to be weekday evenings and all day weekends until late. The users of makerspaces tend to already have jobs or classes during the daytime, so usage is minimal then. Likewise, working all night is rare, largely only used for programming (which can be done anywhere) and emergency deadline rushes (which we can leave to an attendants discretion, if they're willing to stay on out of hours).

A trial set of opening hours would be;

  • Weekday evenings, 2pm to 10pm
  • Weekends, 8am to 12pm (8am-4pm and 4pm-12pm shifts)

That would provide 72 open hours weekly. This should be achievable with a minimum of 2 staff, 3 for flexibility and additional shifts. 4 staff would allow weekday morning opening, but this can be considered a stretch goal.

Last entry would be an hour before closing to give people a set point to start wrapping up. Communal food breaks would be scheduled, giving the attendant a break and building community cohesion. And reminding eager makers to step back & eat.

Funding

The obvious method is membership fees. From survey results, £20 per month is considered reasonable by the majority. To prevent excluding the hard-pressed though, we'll want to offer discounted rates for students, the unemployed and those facing financial hardship.

Additionally we can look at:

  • Day use fees for people who don't want the commitment of membership is also doable. Since it removes a lot of accountability on the individual, the rate needs to be a lot higher than the equivalent members rate. Use of access-controlled tools themselves may be possible if the system is made to issue cards to day users.
  • Goodwill funding by outside supporters through Patreon is welcome. Crowd-funding specific projects may be an option, but such fund-raisers can be very fickle and hard to rely upon for consistency.
  • Tool fees are largely hard to justify for hand tools outside of replacement of consumables, but seem reasonable to implement on high wear or dangerous equipment. EG; lasers, 3D printers, machine tools..
  • Storage fees are also likely to be contentious, but may have additional long-term benefits. Free storage is an easy way to hoard every item that comes your way, and thus become a free disposal facility for e-waste or worse. Storage at a nominal fee, a bit over the rental value of the floorspace, is unlikely to be of serious concern for active projects, but prevent people dumping items to be forgotten. This presumes a billing system that will send reminders. It's also one way of ensuring members groups don't stagnate into groups in name alone if they all have to chip in for a communal storage locker.
  • Material sales are potentially a very good earner. Particularly in maker communities, rapid prototyping means making changes on the fly. And those changes will often need materials you hadn't accounted for when you started. Selling sheet materials, bar stock, cutting services (if you're not trained on a CNC machine yourself) in-house for a moderate profit seems both beneficial to the space and the user.
  • Production services are also an option opened up by having attendants. Being trained in the use of the automated equipment (CNC router, laser cutter, 3D printer, vinyl cutting, scanning & printing) means they can be sold as a service to non-members on demand.

Skills

Skillshares, competence testing, non-accredited

Roughly 1900 children are born every day in the UK (by 2014 figures). Assuming they all learn at the same rate, every day 1900 people are learning something for the first time. This includes knowledge others will subsequently think fundamental or obvious. Learning as a constant state should be recognised and accepted.

Guidance

For some a makerspace is only ever going to be a stepping stone. A place where they test themselves and their ideas before moving on to wider goals. Where are you going with this? We'd like to develop a framework that can help guide people to that end goal, beyond simply assembling an item or trying a technique.

For those looking to make a product to sell that might mean advice on designing for mass production, or easy bulk assembly, as well as ethical funding sources and making them aware of predatory business practices they may fall victim to. For artists it might be networking or advising on good print setups.

Guidance is having an eye on where a user will be going from here, and pointing them toward the better resources.

Tools

The tools a makerspace provides are usually the ones a member cannot afford, justify or store as an individual.

For them to be provided, they need to be usable and accessible. Usable means they must be in good enough order to be used. Accessible means they must be in both a physical and permissible position to be used.

The latter is why the makerspace controls who can work on a piece of equipment and why those who lend equipment must agree to that. If someone were to loan a piece of equipment but on condition only they can maintain it, it means in case of breakdown it will remain out of order until they are able to do so at their convenience, rather that on-hand staff. Likewise for control of use, if someone wishes to use it and is capable of demonstrating they are competent enough to do so, waiting on the convenience of a 3rd party to authorise it is at best an obstruction to usability, and at worst an invitation to interpersonal conflict.

To avoid this, one end goal of a makerspace should be that it eventually owns all it's own equipment. In the meantime, donators would be advised to collaborate on defining the tests of competence for that equipment.

As reassurance, high risk machines may warrant a user deposit to cover damage from negligence, from which can also be deducted any unpaid user fees and disabling use until paid up.

Beyond that, making tools available also means filling gaps as they become apparent. Missing equipment is a killer for a makerspace. Outside of damage or theft however, equipment you never had anyway can be perceived as missing if it breaks the flow of a process by it's absence. Keeping an eye on production chains (where the output of one process is the input of another) is a good way to potentially head this off.

Accessibility also favours the use of some form of tool booking system, so those who have to make an effort to travel in aren't disheartened to find necessary equipment already in use. Attendants make this feasible.

Quality

There's a lot of “good enough” out there. Good enough is for testing and trials. Through improving skills and active tool maintenance, we want to encourage people to work toward improving the quality of their work.

Support

Social

The Minecraft Principle: If you build a base then you have a responsibility to light it up, so monsters don’t spawn in the dark.

Reliable

Why "Workbench Alpha"?

The titles “makerspace”, “hackerspace”, “mens shed”, “workshop” and so on, all carry particular associations on both their membership and anticipated activities. We wanted something reasonably free from those associations that could become it's own entity.

“Makerspace” is the least strict term as it covers a wide range of activities, so we're happy to be known as a makerspace, but we didn't want it in the title. To some it still carries a lack of seriousness. “Hackerspace” tends to draw focus disproportionately on computers and security. The “mens sheds” movement has a self-defining gender bias. “Workshop” either gets confused with any number of day class providers, or professional manufacturing centres.

We chose the name Workbench Alpha for two reasons.

Firstly “workbench”. A lot of the above can tend to fixate on the newest tools out there, often neglecting the basics; hand tools, vices, workbenches. The bread and butter of practical work. We wanted something that showed a commitment to ensuring we had a strong foundation supporting any fancy stuff on top.

Secondly “alpha”. Because it's the first. It's also a prototype. A work in progress. And it carries the promise of more to come. A Workbench Beta, Ceta, Detla and so on. See; The Plan

docs/the_idea.txt · Last modified: 2018/08/13 12:20 by sci