The Foundry Makerspace

By Steven Arbuckle

For people of a certain age, DIY (the idea that you can – and should – “do it yourself”) used to mean huddling over a photocopier with scissors and tape, putting together fliers and ‘zines, or members of a band gathering in a basement or garage to print their own t-shirts. But in the present day, DIY can look a little different – it includes 3D scanners and printers, automated laser cutters, and mobile CNC machines. The three owners of the Foundry, Bellingham’s “makerspace,” noticed that advances in technology have brought us a whole new set of tools, and have created a place where the public can get their hands on them.

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The idea of the cooperative makerspace is not entirely new – there’s a long tradition of people forming co-ops to lower the costs of food and housing, and almost everyone’s experienced carpooling or trading childcare. But in recent years the concept has become even more widespread, and has grown to include organizations that bring together business owners and entrepreneurs. And now there is a place for backyard inventors, crafters, hobbyists, and even light industrialists. Pulling together in this way, the owners and members of the Foundry have access to the kind of space and tools that they probably couldn’t  afford on their own. Importantly, they are creating something larger than a collection of tools in the process: a free-form collective of people ready and willing to share specialized knowledge and lend a helping hand.

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Looking around the building, it’s clear that the Foundry is a place to go to get things done. The central area of the large main room is set up for meetings, workshops and classes. All around the room are a handful of smaller workspaces, each one filled with a set of machines, materials, and tools. A membership gives you access to these tools, and there are classes to give you the training you’ll need to operate them safely. In addition, the owners are on duty to help you make decisions, to list your options as far as methods and materials,  to lend a hand with a project,  or to demystify a potentially mind-boggling piece of technology.

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If a member wanted to make a chess set, for example, she would find plenty of help bringing models of the pieces to a 3D scanner, a camera that records a physical form and converts it into a computer file. That file can then be tweaked and perfected on a desktop in the nearby computer lab before it is sent to a 3D printer, which automatically piles up layer after layer of plastic to build a product. Co-founder Jason Davies explained that there are hard plastics and pliant plastics to choose from, plastics of different colors, and even composite plastics that include carbon fiber and aluminum. And, fortunately, he is right there to help you decide which you’d like to use.

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Not all of the tools are so space-age, however. There are sewing machines – including an industrial serger – and a quaintly vintage-looking metal stamper. One workbench includes a full array of familiar tools for working with electronics and basic robotics, including voltmeters, soldering irons, and an oscilloscope. To find the parts you’ll need to build your robot, visit the lounge. There, alongside a refrigerator and vintage arcade games, is a vending machine in which the usual sweet and salty snacks have been replaced with capacitors, resistors, and diodes. Beyond the lounge is another room that you might not expect to see among all the automated machinery: a full wood shop. It features a joiner, planer, router, and other tools, as well as workspaces that can be rented at a slight additional cost to allow members to store projects on-site. When I visited, plans were underway to expand the Foundry’s footprint to include a metal-working shop.

Including all age groups in this cooperative adventure is important to the creators of the Foundry, and you will find copious amounts of Legos as well as a set of Builder Boards. An educational toy created in Bellingham,  WA Builder Boards are a sort of life-size version of Lincoln Logs made for children to play and experiment with. There are no instructions included, creating a situation that co-founder Mary Keane described as “learning with kids, instead of teaching kids.” This is an attitude that carries over to the calendar of classes and workshops that are offered as well, making it easy to find kid-friendly activities that will not only occupy their time, but hopefully help spark a creative drive in them.

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The Foundry’s physical space, and the tools found there, makes up only one aspect of its mission. It is important to each of the owners that the Foundry also serves as the center of a community. As important as the gizmos are, they say that it is equally important to learn from other people, who may bring more experience or a different viewpoint to the table. They are proud to see creative partnerships develop as well, with members cooking up projects together. And the owners are not the only ones curating calendar events – in the website’s forums and especially on the Foundry’s Facebook page, members not only hatch ideas and plan projects, but also dream up and schedule the workshops and classes that interest them. Events include introductions to various computer graphics and modeling programs, the safe use of lasers, seasonal crafts, and experiences designed to introduce youngsters to the idea of building and creating.

Co-founder Troy Greig suggests checking the calendar on the Foundry’s website when planning for a visit. With the purchase of a day pass, you may be able to work on a project of your own while the kids take part in an event. And if you’re not already familiar with any of the technology mentioned here, the Foundry is a great opportunity to see it in action – my tour was a lot like a visit to a hands-on museum, with the tools and machines serving as the attraction.

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Along with the schedule, a list of tools, and a mission statement, the website is the place to go for day passes and memberships. The basic cost is $50 a month, with nice discounts when you join for 6 or 12 months at a time. Membership covers all of the tools and most of the materials. Some technologies are more expensive than others, though, so there are some additional charges for things like the laser cutter and 3D printers. They are open from noon to 10pm Wednesday through Friday, and noon to midnight on the weekend. Come to the Foundry to make something of your own, and you might just find yourself becoming part of something bigger.