While the image of the lone inventor tinkering in a garage lingers, some tech do-it-yourselfers are banding together in community incubator spaces called hackerspaces or makerspaces. Here they can meet, share tools, equipment and ideas, and work on their projects.
Chris Meyer opened Madison's first hackerspace, Sector67, seven months ago in the old Anderson-Thomas building on Winnebago Street. "It's like a garage, but with no significant other looking in to say, 'What the hell are you doing now?'" says Meyer.
Meyer graduated last fall with a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the UW-Madison, where he won a number of engineering contests. He got some seed money for Sector67 from various UW student competitions and the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. Now 36 members pay $100 a month to share the space.
While hackerspaces are not necessarily ecologically oriented, there is an almost inherently green feeling about them. Space users share tools, which are often salvaged from junkyards or found via want ads or even the trash. Says Meyer, "There are tools you don't need every day, but maybe once a month or once a year."
Other materials used in the projects are otherwise headed for the trash or recycling bin. In the Sector67 computer area, there are eight flat-screen computer monitors, all rehabbed junkers. The wall-mounted flat-screen TV was broken when obtained but, says Meyer, "we had it fixed in less than a day." And one wall is stacked with bins full of extra power supply cords of all different sizes, ethernet cables and the like.
Classes open to anyone, not just members, take place at Sector67 almost every night of the week, on a wide range of topics, from welding to learning computer-aided design.
"This is the ultimate example of upcycling," says Meyer, showing a cup full of plastic milk jug and laundry detergent bottle scraps. These are used as raw materials in an injection molder, which can create, well, pretty much anything it's programmed to, from custom-designed gears to a unique mold for chocolates. Tired of chocolate bunnies for Easter? The sky's the limit.
Scrap metal often comes free from local engineering companies. "They'd have to recycle it anyway, so we use it," Meyer says. "It's amazing what engineering companies will get rid of."
Some of what the members of Sector 67 are making has an obvious green component. The group just completed making a bicycle-operated blender out of scrap parts for DreamBikes, which can demonstrate how much energy a person can create by pedaling a bicycle - but also allow you to mix yourself a smoothie on your way to your softball game.
One member is working on software that will text bus riders real-time data as to where exactly on its route the bus is and when it will arrive at their stop, thereby "making it easier and therefore more appealing to take public transportation," says Meyer.
Another member who lives near the train tracks is working on a device that will sense when a train is coming and automatically close his windows. Not necessarily green, but a small life improvement.
"Successful entrepreneurs," reflects Meyer, "never start out to make money; they set out to provide for an unmet need." Sector67 is the kind of environment where ideas to meet those needs can be fostered.