Madison hardware-hacking celebrity Ben Heck teaching a class at Sector67. For more photos, click gallery, above.
A young boy strides confidently into the warehouse space on Madison's near east side that houses Sector67, a new community "hackerspace." His two friends trail slightly behind him as he takes them first into a back room filled with computers, then into another space crammed with several imposing-looking CNC machines - the new generation of computer-controlled milling machines that can create just about anything a user programs them to. The kids' eyes go slightly wide at the sight, smiles twitching at the corners of their mouths.
"He came in the other day with his little sister and started teaching her how to write in the Python coding language," explains Chris Meyer with a grin.
Sector67 is Meyer's brainchild, and he acts as the organization's director. Opened last October in a 4,100-square-foot warehouse at 2100 Winnebago St., Sector67 is best described as a collaborative community space dedicated to giving regular folks a place to work on new ideas. The organization provides members with the tools to do everything from prototyping to computer programming, welding, creating art projects and running a small business, as well as offering access to professional machining and even 3D printing facilities.
Originally from Janesville, Meyer, 26, came to Madison for the same reason many high school graduates do: to attend the university. It wasn't a straight shot for Meyer, though. He had originally thought of attending Marquette to go into dentistry, but life had other plans. He eventually settled on the UW "for chemistry or biology," but ended up getting both his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering.
Meyer says the idea for Sector67 came to him when he was mulling over possibilities for a new business-venture competition toward the end of his graduate studies at the UW-Madison.
"There's a whole bunch of these hackerspaces around the world, but they're all in big cities, primarily a lot bigger than Madison," notes Meyer. "Madison is kind of the asterisk next to the rule that you need a big city to support something like this."
When he pitched the hackerspace idea to the competition judges, Meyer had no idea there was a category for "Social Value Added," figuring points were only awarded based on an idea's moneymaking potential. In the end, he placed in the top three and used the winnings and exposure to get the ball rolling on Sector67.
The name for the hackerspace came from a tour Meyer took at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago at the same time he was working on the business plan for what would become Sector67.
"They have an X-ray beamline that's broken up into sectors, so as I was walking around everything was tagged with 'sector,'" he relates. "I thought it was a cool, techy-sounding name."
Upon researching domain names, Meyer found a lot of the "sector" names were taken, even when combined with single-digit numbers. "At that point, I had finished most of the business plan, including the financial projections that were showing us needing 67 members to be financially stable."
Why the need for such a facility?
"When I was on campus, as an engineer, you couldn't use any of the UW's resources for personal projects at all," Meyer explains. "You can't use the student machine shop and learn how to machine by building this thing that you're really interested in. You have to build the thing your professor wants you to build." And that isn't the best way to learn, he says.
It was through his time as an assistant at the UW's Engine Research Center that Meyer finally had the chance to do what he wanted. The people running the center saw that "learning how to use the equipment by being excited about whatever you're excited about," as Meyer puts it, would lead to a student becoming "a really good machinist." Meyer credits his boss there with teaching him how to use machine and welding tools.
Meyer used that knowledge to seek out and purchase two CNC mills at an auction in Fitchburg. He adds wryly that he only knew enough about the machines to know "that I wanted to buy them." From there it was a matter of learning as he went - which is, Meyer says, the whole point of Sector67.
For $100 a month ($50 if you're a college student, $25 for high-schoolers), Sector67's several dozen members get full access to the shop: CNC machines, 3D printers, computers, welding and soldering tools, a pottery wheel and, perhaps most important - once you've passed a sort of one-month sanity check - 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week access to a workspace where you don't have to worry about annoying your roommates, neighbors or spouses with your tinkering.
Sector67 also offers a wide range of "à la carte" classes that you don't need to be a member to attend. Course topics include aluminum sand casting, TIG welding, circuit bending, bike repair, computer programming and lock picking. (The full list is available via the website, sector67.org.)
Meyer says he's tried to keep things simple, offering single-session classes so they're more approachable to people with otherwise busy schedules.
A community of makers
Sector67 is like what inventors, tinkerers and mad scientists wish they had in their own basements. In one corner there's a custom-built, souped-up electric Power Wheels car that some of the members have put together for what's called the Power Racing Series. Races are typically between other hacker/makerspaces from different cities.
As described by the Cowtown Computer Congress blog, "The Power Racing Series is an event where Hacker/Whateverspaces turn those toy cars that everyone wanted but only stupid Brad from down the street owned (even though everyone hated him) into highly competitive sort of racing machines."
Sector67 won first place in a Kansas City race recently, and at the Detroit Maker Faire in July, making them "world champs" for the year.
The Maker Faire movement started in San Mateo, Calif., in 2006 and has since spread across the country. Maker Faire is self-described as "the premier event for grassroots American innovation," a do-it-yourself festival for the whole family. With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs to overseas markets, the maker/DIY ethos gained traction. People haven't stopped coming up with new ideas; they just lack outlets for developing and showing them off. Fairs and facilities like Sector67 have stepped in to help fill that void.
In another corner Meyer shows off some of the small but innovative entrepreneurial work being done by another member. Without giving too much away, the product is a piece of bicycle-safety-related apparel, waterproof and super-cool. It wouldn't be at all surprising to see it on the market in the not-so-distant future.
Hanging on the wall in one room are several milled wood pieces, one cut to the three-dimensional specifications of a topographical map of Devil's Lake, another of Madison's isthmus. This is the work of a member hoping to make larger versions of the maps that can be used as artful coffee tables, among other things. The data is from U.S. Geological Service maps, translated into code that a machine then translates again and uses to cut out the piece.
"The USGS still thinks Monona Terrace is a cliff," Meyer laughs, pointing to where the building should be on the cutout. "Unfortunately the survey data isn't very high-res," he adds. It is, however, free.
Out back of the building there's even a small but productive raised-bed garden growing several kinds of vegetables. Water from three large rain barrels helps maintain the garden, which Meyer would like to enlarge now that he knows it can be done.
The current crown jewels in the Sector67 tool collection are the 3D printers - machines that take a computer rendering of an object and convert it into the real thing by a process of layering. Instead of printing out flat text or photos on a piece of paper, think of a tiny gadget assembly line all in one box.
One 3D printer is called the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, which enjoyed an auspicious introduction to the mainstream after inventor Bre Pettis was interviewed on The Colbert Report in June. He took a 3D laser scan of Colbert's head before the show, used the printer to create a replica bust during the course of the interview, and then posted the specifications online for anyone to try. Sector67's Colbert heads are proudly displayed next to their machines.
Another printer is called a RepRap. As with the MakerBot, computer instructions allow it to "print" 3D objects from plastic, but it can also be programmed to produce its own parts and reproduce. That is, if you have one RepRap, it can print you a copy of itself. Instructions for how to build it are available on the web - it's all open-source - so Meyer simply downloaded them and put the machine together in the shop.
These 3D printers are "where ink jet printers were about 10 years ago," says Meyer. "You're going to see this stuff getting better and more affordable really quickly."
He's keen on the idea of making this technology accessible to people of all ages.
The MakerBot has built-in kid appeal, even beyond its inherent coolness, and Meyer is enthusiastic about talks he's had with the Madison Children's Museum to see one of their 3D printers installed in the building for kids to try out. His idea is to load the MakerBot "with jelly and peanut butter instead of plastic, which you can do, and have the kids use those mediums to paint whatever they want on sandwiches and stuff."
Meyer believes strongly in involving younger people in Sector67.
"I taught an 8-year-old how to solder, which was pretty fun," he says. He did have to reassure the 8-year-old's mother, telling her: "Don't distract him; he's totally fine as long as you don't scare him into not paying attention."
Meyer developed his belief in hands-on skills growing up in Janesville, when a man with a machine shop in his neighborhood helped him and his brother build and modify BMX and dirt bikes.
Meyer's girlfriend, Heather, helps teach an afterschool program for disadvantaged kids that focuses on science and technology. The program, called Fractal, takes a project-based approach to teaching, so that even kids who are struggling with basic math problems can tackle more complex things like physics.
"It's the same thing I do here," Meyer says. "I try to never address theoretical topics, just skirt around them. And then I say, 'If you want to know why that LED blinks on and off, we have to get into how the chip really works.' Once a thing stops working you explain why, and they're like, 'Oh I get it! I understand!'"
A scrappy partnership
In addition to its work with kids and adults, Sector67 has developed a symbiotic relationship with several area businesses that use a lot of the same materials the space needs.
Milling and manufacturing companies normally have to pay to recycle some of their scrap materials and tools, but Meyer takes these materials off their hands free of charge. David Vaughn of Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing, a co-op-style automated machine and system developer, sees the company's relationship with Sector67 as beneficial to both businesses and the community at large.
"He picks through our scrap, makes off with worn-out - to us - tools, and otherwise takes the things that are no longer valuable to us, but that may be of use to someone else," says Vaughn.
Vaughn says Sector67 fosters interest in tech sectors of the economy we hear so much about these days. It does all of the things we want to see happen: encourages innovation and technical development, supports small businesses, offers technical education and uses technology to help foster a sense of community.
Meyer gets scrap and other parts from Renascence Manufacturing Corp., too, where Jeff Jenkins appreciates the unique role Sector67 plays in the city. Jenkins initially met Meyer at an equipment auction and built their working relationship from there.
"Sector67 is like a health club for creative people," he says. "The open access and unstructured environment are perfect for a certain kind of person.... I believe that what he is doing fills a long-neglected need."
Meyer realizes he'll never make a lot of money from Sector67, so he went the nonprofit route, becoming involved in the community.
The community appears to see the benefits of being involved in return. Shortly after opening the doors, Meyer was able to secure a $5,000 grant from Madison Gas & Electric's foundation, which helped buy the chairs, tables and desks for Sector67's computer lab.
"MG&E was really excited about this," says Meyer. "They see it as the potential for entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship builds businesses, which buy utilities, so it works out well for everyone in the long run."
The future is here
Meyer hasn't done much in the way of advertising Sector67, except to a local robotics team and the Children's Museum, and doesn't see much need for it. Joe Kerman, a Sector67 member who also helped found the JVLNET Internet service out of Janesville, explains, "We probably get three to five people a day in terms of walk-in traffic." Being located in the heart of the artsy near east side helps, too.
During a recent Gallery Night, even though Sector67 wasn't an official participant and hadn't even realized the event was happening, groups of people found their way through the big bay doors to check out the space. (Doubtless its location near Winnebago Studios helped.)
"It was great, but now that we actually know about it, next time maybe we should put together an actual presentation," Kerman laughs.
In terms of what Sector67 will offer as time goes on, Meyer says it's mostly up to what he and other members are interested in, and what the community asks for.
"As far as the tools and stuff that are here, the interesting thing is that the members really push the direction we go in for what tools we want to buy next," Meyer says.
He started with the machine shop because that was where his experience lay. Another member, a software developer by day, wanted to do aluminum casting, so he bought the equipment and installed it at Sector67.
"He was like, I want to do aluminum casting but I can't cast big stuff in my basement," says Meyer. "So here, I'll just give you guys all this stuff, sign up for a membership and then come in and use it whenever I want."
Meyer is also looking forward to starting some summer classes for younger kids, where he'll teach them how to go from 3D modeling to machining out their designs. He's given tours to groups of homeschooled students, brought in by parents who notice their kids are interested. "It's been very eye-opening in that sense, seeing people that are genuinely interested in having their kids learn this," Meyer says.
Meyer also says his long-term goal is simply to see if Sector67 can become financially viable. "Working here is a ton of fun, but I don't know if this will pay the bills down the road," he admits. "If I could pull that off, start making a salary of some sort, that would make me incredibly happy."
Young and old, male and female, artist and code nerd - Meyer has seen to it that everyone even just a little interested in making things for themselves has a place at Sector67.