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The Build-Up of MIT’s Building Spaces

Project Manus reboots MIT’s makerspaces.

April 25, 2017
Bob O'Connor

In the spring of 2016, Lucy Du ’14, SM ’16, was racing to complete her portion of SawBlaze, an MIT student team’s entry for Season 2 of ­BattleBots on ABC. The wheeled robot’s main weapon was a powerful circular saw at the end of a mechanical arm. But the team also wanted SawBlaze to breathe green fire, and Du had volunteered to figure out how to make that happen. So she headed for MakerWorkshop in Building 35.

Run by graduate students, the mechanical engineering workshop is packed with four kinds of 3-D printers, two laser cutters, a precision lathe, a water jet cutter, a CNC mill, and countless power and hand tools. Workstations line one wall at the front, and there’s another room at the back for whiteboarding and brainstorming. MakerWorkshop is often crowded with young engineers. Once Du devised a basic plan, she approached Maha Haji, SM ’15, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering with a background in fluid dynamics. “I helped her understand everything going on inside the fuel tank, how the fuel would be pumped out through the hose, and also what kind of materials you might want to use to change the flame color,” Haji says. The pair worked together to test a few designs, and before long, SawBlaze was spouting green fire.

It’s the kind of interaction that happens frequently inside MakerWorkshop. (In fact, a few months later Du would help Haji, the current president of the shop, think through some of the mechanics of a device she’s building for her PhD research.) The facility is one of the first products of an Institute-wide effort to upgrade makerspaces, expand access to them, and foster more maker communities on campus. A multiyear program called Project Manus includes a new course, Intro to Making, which launched this semester; a planned 20,000-square-foot Mega Makerspace on the ground floor of the old Metropolitan Storage Warehouse on Vassar Street; and a unique freshman training space called the MakerLodge.

On one level, this institutional effort might seem unnecessary. The MIT campus already has 45 makerspaces, totaling more than 130,000 square feet. A few years ago, however, a mix of students and faculty independently arrived at the same conclusion: the Institute needed a maker upgrade.

First Makers

An alumnus or two might argue that the maker movement was born at MIT, whose motto, after all, is Mens et Manus, or Mind and Hand. During the 1937-’38 school year, a group of students set up shop in the basement of Building 2. They filled it with wood- and metal-­working equipment found around campus and called their new home the Hobby Shop, since it was originally meant to be used only for nonacademic pursuits. “MIT students have always been inventors and people who want to bring their ideas to reality,” says Ken Stone ’72, the Hobby Shop’s director from 1991 until his retirement in 2016. “What’s happened in recent years is that people have recognized what a powerful concept this is. It spurs innovation when the designers are actually the makers.”

The Hobby Shop remains a popular spot today, drawing nearly 300 new members a year, and the campus is scattered with other facilities for enterprising students who want to pursue outlandish projects, build prototypes, or just tinker aimlessly. But before Project Manus was launched in October 2015, students and professors alike were finding it hard to utilize these spaces. As an undergraduate, Marcel Thomas ’12, SM ’14, and a group of friends were able to use the Hobby Shop when they were building a lighting set-up that pulsed in time with a sound system for a dance at Next House. But when he and his classmates made a lathe for Mechanical Engineering 2.72, they had to switch shops repeatedly. Certain spaces had better instruments than others, and sometimes the students shifted locations because shops weren’t open when they had time to use them. “We were bouncing all around campus making one lathe,” he says.

For some would-be makers, safety issues created another holdup. Before they can use the equipment, from relatively harmless 3-D printers to dangerous lathes, students must be properly trained. Provost Martin Schmidt, SM ’83, PhD ’88, remembers working for an entire year with two of his graduate students on the design of a new machine for micro- and nano-scale fabrication. When he assigned them to make the prototype, though, the pair returned with bad news: there was a waiting list of up to six months to be trained on the machine they needed to use. “This was a common experience,” Schmidt says. “We hadn’t really encouraged someone to solve the problem at the campus scale.”

In MakerWorkshop machines are arranged in order of complexity; the most dangerous equipment is fenced off.

The Czar

In 2013, two years before launching Project Manus, MIT appointed mechanical engineering professor Martin Culpepper, SM ’97, PhD ’00, to be the school’s first “Maker Czar.” Students like Thomas and Dan Dorsch ’12, SM ’15, a PhD student and champion of student-run makerspaces who won a Lemelson-MIT award for his work on a clutchless automobile transmission, found an ally in Culpepper. A builder and DIY enthusiast who had grown up taking apart engines to see how they worked, he gravitated to MIT for grad school because of the mens et manus culture.

Culpepper began working with Dorsch, Thomas, and other student makerspace advocates, studying existing MIT facilities, such as the student-run MIT Electronics Research Society (MITERS), and visiting academic makerspaces at other institutions. In the summer of 2015, he surveyed more than 1,100 students to get a better sense of the maker scene on campus. One of the key findings was that only 7 percent of the students said the workshops’ standard hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. met their needs.

The survey also revealed that the majority of makers worked on projects in their dorm rooms or in common areas, not in staffed facilities. Culpepper and the Project Manus team guessed that more accessible facilities might draw students out of their rooms and into safer environments.

These new workshops would not have to be professionally staffed, either. ­Culpepper found evidence that a student-­run center sponsored by MIT could work when he toured a hugely successful one at the Georgia Institute of Technology. A student-staffed center could operate on undergraduate hours—and expand the maker community at MIT. “Part of my job is to make sure the students have the right tools and techniques and training to make and build things for their education,” Culpepper says. “But at the same time, I want to bring the maker culture in.”

A Grimy Home

That culture is already alive and well at the MITERS shop in building N52. The linoleum floor is encrusted with grime. The air smells like metal, and the whirring and grinding of machines is nearly constant. Charles Guan ’11 likens it to Mos ­Eisley, the spaceport in Star Wars. Founded by students in 1972—and run by students ever since—MITERS is self-funded, mostly through the sale of spare parts and equipment at MIT’s Swapfest. Members describe its existence as precarious at best, since it’s not officially approved by the Institute. There are no official hours, either. A sensor on the door triggers a computer program to tweet when it’s open or closed. A few members have keys, but the others just follow @MITERS_DOOR on Twitter. Inside, MITERS has many of the same machines as other makerspaces, but they’re all rejects—old, used equipment discarded by departments, then salvaged and fixed up by members. The projects on display range from Tesla coils to one-of-a-kind vehicles. A snowmobile/bike mashup known as a snow-trike leans against an old go-cart. A motorized, drivable shopping cart hangs from the ceiling by a thick chain, and the shelves are stuffed with robots.

One Tuesday evening during IAP, standing at a table in the back of the room as music blares through overhead speakers, Alex Hattori ’19 confesses that he spends pretty much every afternoon and evening at MITERS. By his estimate, he has built 20 different combat robots here since the start of his freshman year, and all these late-night build sessions have helped him tremendously in his classes. He understood many of the basic principles of mechanical engineering presented in his introductory courses because he’d already learned them on his own.

But for Hattori, who happens to be a four-time national yo-yo champion, MITERS is also a second home. Guan, who built the original version of the aforementioned shopping cart, says this echoes his MITERS experience, noting that many members—there are a few dozen—feel the same way. “It provides a relief valve for people when they’re not in class,” he says. “A lot of members are the nerdy, quiet types. We’d rather fiddle with something than sit back and relax.”

Jamison Go, SM ’15, a mechanical engineering grad student who helped launch Georgia Tech’s student-run space as an undergrad there, says MITERS is unique—and not just within MIT. “They’re the gold standard for a maker community,” says Go. “I’ve not seen a more enthusiastic group of people who really want to make things and want to learn how to make things.”

An electric go-cart featuring Nissan alternators and a Prius motor controller is under construction at MITERS.

Despite the shop’s lawless vibe, the students are just as passionate about helping each other and making sure no one gets hurt. “Everybody’s looking out for each other rather than being baby-sat,” says ­Culpepper. “Because it’s a community, they’re interested in each other’s safety.” This sense of community is exactly what Culpepper and Project Manus are trying to encourage across the Institute. “A maker isn’t a person that goes and expects a shop technician to tell you what to do,” he adds. “Makers are more about teaching each other and learning from each other.”

Within the student-run MakerWorkshop, graduate students like Haji, Du, and Thomas, a founding member and master of the laser-cutting machine, have already seen the value of tapping their fellow makers’ expertise. The group also organizes Maker Monday training sessions, social events like Fab Fridays, build nights, and gatherings that give members a chance to show off their latest creations. The projects range from Haji’s prototype to whimsical products like a holiday cookie mold. Here, too, there’s a serious focus on safety. You can’t cross a line of black tape on the floor without goggles, and you’ll be scolded if you approach a machine in loose-fitting clothing, wearing jewelry, or with hair hanging freely. A floor-to-ceiling aluminum fence—whose gate can be locked—blocks off the most dangerous instruments, such as the lathe and mill, and no one can use any equipment until being properly trained and certified. But MakerWorkshop, which opened in May 2015, accelerates this process because graduate students conduct the training sessions—and there are more of them. In the first year of operation, they got three times as many students trained on the mill and lathe as a professionally staffed MIT facility. More than 800 students (plus some faculty and postdocs) have been through the program to date.

MakerWorkshop president Maha Haji, SM ’15, operates the CNC mill.

One floor up, the MakerLodge, another Project Manus product, is a scaled-down, training-focused space that opened in September. A volunteer staff of roughly three dozen undergraduates teaches first-year students how to safely use two different laser cutters, four kinds of 3-D printers, and a selection of power tools. “If we get them excited about making things, then when they’re juniors or seniors, they might think about starting a company, and they’ll know exactly how to start prototyping,” Culpepper says. “They’ll know where to go and they’ll have the training.” In that first semester, nearly 200 freshmen received MakerLodge certification. ­Culpepper ensured that the training sessions in both the MakerLodge and MakerWorkshop would meet the standards of many other facilities on campus, so that students would be able to use equipment that wasn’t available to them before.

The Project Manus team has made it easier to find those machines, too. With student input, they developed an app called Mobius that lets makers search the entire campus for the instruments needed to work with their materials. “Of the dozen or so water jets on campus, now we know where they are and how you can use one,” says Jamison Go. Finally, as a kind of seed funding, Project Manus gives MakerLodge grads $100 in “Makerbucks” to spend on materials or equipment rentals and a tool box with $50 worth of tools.

Naturally, Culpepper and the students are looking forward to the Mega Makerspace, slated for construction in 2018. Although it’s still in the design stage, a few features are clear. The facility will be partially staffed by students, which will allow it to stay open later than a regular shop, and it will include a wider range of instruments, from injection molding equipment to bicycle repair tools.

The success of Project Manus will be difficult to quantify, but the team is developing metrics, including a log-in system to track activity and hours. For Schmidt, the value of expanding MIT’s maker culture—and giving more students the opportunity to engage both manus and mens—is clear. “It’s one thing to show somebody how to use a 3-D printer and then let them use it,” he says. “But it’s another thing entirely for students to have a community that they can go to, bounce their ideas off, refine their thinking, and get encouragement but also intellectual contributions to what they’re trying to accomplish. That is where we have really transformative potential.”

At MITERS, Rebecca Li ’17 rides a powered skateboard built for snow or all-around fun.

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