Silicon Harbor’s Maker Culture and Hacker Spaces

Silicon Harbor has an emerging sub culture that is rising from the underground scene. That’s right—the maker culture is putting down roots here in Charleston, and much to the benefit of our startup, tech and entrepreneurial cultures. Makers are a benefit to any community. Naturally curious, creative and innovated folks, they love to invent, repurpose and tackle any problem-solving project they can get their hands on. Charleston’s maker spaces, which are tucked away in every corner of the region, are slowly becoming public knowledge and developing loyal communities of self-taught hackers.

SpaceCraft Studios

spacecraft-studios

SpaceCraft Studios

In the Avondale neighborhood of West Ashley you’ll find SpaceCraft Studios, the dream business of Allison Merrick. If you were at Dig South this spring you may remember seeing Merrick—she was the beautiful, stylish woman in a craft apron, showing off her brand new Makerbot 3D printer. After working for many years as a technology producer for an education research agency in San Francisco she got laid off. She used that life event as an opportunity to start bringing her maker space vision to life, while being very sensitive to what the community wanted.

After attending Maker Fair, Merrick was inspired by the network surrounding 3D printing and ordered her Makerbot, which was one of the first out-of-the-box models on the market. She waited months for it, only to suffer through immediate hardware problems. The support staff, however, walked her through the entire process of replacing the extruder head. Merrick immediately experienced the solidarity among this maker community, which has been built on collective learning. She noted that before you could buy a 3D printer off the shelf, “they had to be built. A few companies developed kits along the way… but there wasn’t a lot of documentation; it still required a lot of camaraderie and trading of information and question-asking and knowledge-sharing.”

spacecraft-makerbot-printer

Merrick’s Makerbot 3D Printer & Scanner

This is the same model that drives her business today. SpaceCraft doesn’t have a membership model. Merrick relies on the curiosity of others to utilize her space and bring in profits. She uses her 3D printer to do prototyping for everyone from sculptors to hardware development companies, charging by the weight of the materials used, and the time it took to make. She rents the studio out to makers as well, and offers numerous classes, including many children’s craft studios. Merrick said, “I’m a believer in once you learn something enough that you can do it, the next step is to start sharing that knowledge with other people. I encourage everyone who is diving into projects and learning a lot to share their information because that’s how everyone will grow as a community.”

Makelab Charleston

makelab-charleston

Makelab Charleston

Joe Dwyer—an increasingly familiar name about town—founded Makelab Charleston in 2011, a completely bootstrapped and member-funded project. From the outside, Makelab looks like a quaint North Charleston bungalow, but once you step inside it’s like entering a clubhouse with key fob security and an app that controls the building’s many automated features. They operate on a membership model, and offer a few classes every month that are open to the public.

The lab has three main components. The mechanical room has any conventional building tool you could imagine, as well as a CNC machine, which automates the building process. Any design can be drawn in a CAD program and the machine will automatically cut it, making the manufacturing process incredibly efficient. The 3D printer room houses two kit printers that were built by different members. Dwyer believes the 3D printer will soon become a ubiquitous device “synonymous with the personal computer,” he said.

makelab-printer-server

Makelab’s assembled 3D Printer & Server Stack

Dwyer is passionate about the maker movement of innovation and desktop fabrication, and realizes that the cost of resources and steep learning curve make it less accessible. He said “by grouping together we’re able to overcome the cost barriers and share knowledge so that we can collaborate and develop interesting things.”

The Charleston Fab Lab

FabLabCNC

Entrepreneur at Fab Lab working on CNC cut sunglasses design.

Out on Johnnie Dodds Blvd in Mount Pleasant, tucked away behind banks and franchises, you’ll find the commercial complex where the Charleston Fab Lab is housed. Modeled after the MIT Fab Lab, founder Nick Godfrey hopes that the space will eventually become an open source facility for digital fabrication. Godfrey began his life as a maker after years at a construction job led to a furniture business. After getting a large order for one particular piece he started looking into CNC machines. Within months he had bought a machine, assembled it, learned how to draw in CAD and then how to cut things.

The Fab Lab now has a few 3D printers, a laser cutter, two CNC machines, a collection of Arduino systems, and numerous other tools and gadgets. They act as contractors, consulting in prototyping, or simply building unique features for various construction projects in the region. Godfrey also rents the space to makers, charging rent based on the extensiveness of their project. The result is many startup companies now incubate in the Fab Lab with Godfrey making sure people are trained well on the equipment, investing in the person. “When people have that certain desire and they want to be really entrepreneurial it’s exciting, and we all feed off of that… If they succeed I feel like we all succeed,” he said. Godfrey himself has started another business building CNC-cut small homes called Fine and Small Homes.

FabLabBarstool

Sliding Barstool Prototype at Fab Lab.

Merrick, Dwyer and Godfrey aren’t just providing resources to budding makers, but they are sharing their knowledge as entrepreneurs and innovators. Their maker spaces are more than hangouts for hobbyists, but are boosting our entrepreneurial economy by bringing automated manufacturing to the whole community. These open source communities where technology, knowledge and skill-sets are shared are central to the growth of Silicon Harbor. At first glance they might seem like nerdy clubs and crafting spaces (and they are!) but they are also innovation hubs that are increasingly crucial to our growing creative and entrepreneurial economy.


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