From drawing to device: Splatspace putting manufacturing skills into more hands

May. 28, 2013 @ 01:49 PM

Splatspace is a nonprofit organization that calls itself “Durham’s hackerspace,” but the term “hacker” in this context does not mean breaking into protected databases. At Splatspace, hacking is about making and inventing things, and collaborating with other interested hobbyists.
Recently, Splatspace was one of eight similar spaces internationally that won a new 3-D LulzBot printer, made by Aleph Objects, a company in Colorado. Aleph asked hackerspaces to describe work they are doing in their communities to further the “Libre Hardware movement,” according to Aleph’s website. Among the other hackerspaces that won the contest were the Warsaw (Poland) Hackerspace, Freeside of Atlanta and Makerspace Madrid.
To celebrate that accomplishment, Splatspace will have an open house Saturday where visitors can see the new 3-D printer in action, and other tools at the space.
Mike Broome, a member of Splatspace, demonstrated how the printer works. A 3-D printer translates a computer drawing of a device (for example, a machine part) and then translates it into a three-dimensional object that can be used as a prototype. As Broome operated the machine, layers of plastic eventually created a miniature octopus. Broome said he likes to compare a 3-D printer to having a hot glue gun with a computer program.
Participating at Splatspace does not require experience in computers or machine tools. “We have crafty types of all sorts,” said Jon Sackett, a member of the space. “We’re open to anybody,” Broome said. By way of example, Broome and Sackett are both programmers – Sackett adds that he’s “a programmer by trade [but] a writer by education.” Jeff Crews, the president of Splatspace, sews and makes costumes and paper crafts.
Splatspace has paying members, but its mission is to help the community. If someone walks in who is not a member and has an idea, Splatspace will work with that person to make it happen, said Sackett. The organization also works with schools, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math. That commitment to outreach is what Crews thinks earned Splatspace the contest accolades.
“Some hackerspaces are relatively closed organizations, but we are not,” Crews said. The organization recently had a workshop at East Regional Library to teach young children Scratch, a basic animation program. Splatspace also has helped the 3-D printer club at Central Park School for Children, Crews said.
“Many, many, many of our mentors come from Splatspace,” said Kristin Bedell, AIG (academically and intellectually gifted) teacher at Efland-Cheeks Elementary in Orange County. “Their focus on education is phenomenal. One of the things that sets them apart from other hackerspaces is promoting education at all levels,” Bedell said.
Splatspace has mentored Efland-Cheeks students at the robotics camps held two to three times a year, she said. Splatspace also has demonstrated the 3-D printer at the school, and the school’s Maker Club was directly inspired by Splatspace, Bedell said. The school has not yet worked with a 3-D printer, but hopes next year to partner with Central Park School in Durham to build one, “and that will be our first foray into 3-D printing,” she said.
Two-thirds of Efland-Cheeks students are in poverty, and the robot camps would not be possible without the free help that Splatspace offers, she said. Building robots and other devices removes fears and barriers, and some of the students “are re-envisioning themselves as scientists,” Bedell said.
Time magazine recently published a cover story about 3-D printing and its potential to revive the United States’ manufacturing economy. The technology has been used to make prosthetics that medical companies will not develop because of the costs, Crews said. Another common application is making parts for old and antique cars, Broome said. The printer can make a prototype of the part, which can then be tested and refined, then made into metal with traditional machine tools or a metal 3-D printer.
“What is really exciting … once people got their hands on this technology at a reasonable cost … suddenly there was this explosion in design,” Crews said. By making prototyping of a product much easier, the process “de-monopolizes” manufacturing, he said.

Go and Do
WHAT: Splatspace presents a “come see the new printer” event
WHEN: Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m.
WHERE: The Snow Building, 331 W. Main St., Durham (in the basement)
ADMISSION: Free. For more information, visit splatspace.org.