Makerspaces fill void in manufacturing ecosystem and are a catalyst for innovation and a means of kickstarting skills in the workforce.

Collective and collaborative makerspaces, a.k.a hackerspaces, are just what their name suggests: spaces for makers to create most anything you can imagine.

Typically supported by members who pay monthly dues for access to equipment ranging from CNC routers to buttonholers to 3D printers, these nonprofits have sprouted all over the U.S., and Colorado is no exception.

Denhac, short for Denver Hackerspace, led the charge in the Rockies. “We’re 99 percent sure we are the first hackerspace in Colorado and one of the first in the nation,” says Operations Manager Robb Hendershot, noting that Boulder’s arts-oriented Phoenix Asylum also opened in 2008. “It was before the maker movement was emerging.”

After a stint near the Denver Merchandise Mart on the north side of the city, Denhac relocated to the Denver Open Media building in the Art District on Santa Fe in 2014. “It was a really good move for us,” says Hendershot. “We’ve seen a lot more interest and a lot more visibility. We’ve really grown a lot since the move.”

Denhac now has about 45 paying members sharing CNC machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, and other equipment to build robots, small electronic gadgets, and costumes.

It’s one of a number of like-minded spaces on the Front Range, where people share tools and tips to bring ideas off of the drawing board.

“There are eight different spaces and 12 different business models,” Hendershot jokes. “It makes for such a neat community. Everybody has their focus. We really complement each other more than compete.”

For-profit spaces like the California-based TechShop chain aim to sell machine-hours and others cater to entrepreneurs, but Denhac’s mission is education. “Ours is come in and learn,” says Hendershot. Some makerspaces, like TinkerMill in Longmont, “are geared to handle more of a production run. We’re more geared for a one-off.”

Tinkering with entrepreneurialism

Located in the state-supported North Metro Enterprise Zone, TinkerMill launched in 2013 after founder Scott Converse organized a hackathon with local high-school students. “It was so successful that he thought there could be more folks into doing a private-public partnership community making stuff,” says Executive Director Ron Thomas.

photo courtesy of Chelsea Farmer

A group of 20 founders coalesced around the idea and donated $300 apiece to get the 501(c)3 nonprofit up and running. “Since then, we’re in the black,” says Thomas. “We’re supported by membership dues, class fees and office licensing.”

TinkerMill is now Colorado’s largest makerspace. Members cover the gamut of makers: There are roboticists, woodworkers, glass artists, composite specialists, jewelers, electronics tinkerers, and 3D-printing acolytes. “Having that rich, diverse membership . . . working in close proximity to each other is a really amazing thing,” says Thomas, who’s one of the founders and TinkerMill’s lone paid staffer.

Several startups take advantage of the month-to-month spaces encompassed by the last of the three revenue streams, including Diabase Engineering and SensorNova. Several tenants have garnered funding from Longmont Ignite and such manufacturers as ExtractCraft have graduated to their own facilities after starting at the space.

Makerspaces “provide really, really, really easy access to manufacturing equipment and technology to the general public,” says Thomas. “To get something made or built, you could hire a job shop, but that’s going to cost you a lot of money.” At a makerspace, you can leverage sweat equity and do it yourself. “You can walk in the door with an idea and walk out with a fully-formed business.”

photo courtesy of Chelsea Farmer

Jamie Leben, co-founder and board member of Loveland CreatorSpace, says he spun his own business, IT Works, out of the space after starting it there in early 2015. “We’re in a wonderful location right downtown,” says Leben. “We’re the makerspace with the most breweries in walking distance.” (For the record, there are three — Verboten, Loveland Aleworks, and Crow Hop.)

The 6,500-square-foot space is the nonprofit’s second location, in a rehabilitated building owned by the Erion Foundation. “Rather than giving us cash, they give us below-market, subsidized rent,” says Leben.

People have made 40-foot kites for Burning Man, BattleBots for the ABC show of the same name, and plenty of prototypes for startups. “We like to say it’s a greenhouse,” says Leben.

A cut-and-sew counterpart

Denver Design Incubator offers a cut-and-sew hackerspace at cut-and-sew supplier Ralph’s Power Sewing Machine in Denver. Vice Chair Holli Gibson co-founded the nonprofit with Carol Engel-Enright and Lisa Elstun in 2011.

“I’ve been a fashion designer for 26 years now,” says Gibson. She says when she relocated to Colorado from Texas in 2003, she found “nobody to work for here” and launched her own kids’ line in LamanBlu. “That’s how I met everybody.”

DDI sprung from this experience. “Very talented students would graduate and have to go to New York or L.A.,” says Gibson. “That shouldn’t be.”

Ralph’s VP of Sales Jack Makovsky got involved and offered DDI space and industrial sewing machines. It was a match made in cut-and-sew heaven. “The equipment is very large and very expensive, and you have to maintain it,” says Gibson.

DDI now has about 15 sewing machines, buttonholers, and other specialized equipment, there’s a sourcing library filled with sample books and vendor directories, and Gibson has plans to expand soon. Members pay $70 a month for all access, and there are also five-day punchcards and day passes.

“We have a really wide variety of people,” says Gibson. “We have new designers, we have hobby sewers, and we have companies that are up and running. They need a piece of specialized equipment. That’s one part of our program we’re looking at building out further.”

A new room with a flatlock and other specialized machines is slated to open in 2017. “It’ll be set up for contractors,” says Gibson. “It’ll be a different tier [of membership]. It’ll require additional training and setup.”

“The biggest thing DDI does is educate and connect,” says Gibson. Contract manufacturers “are not going to hold your hand. DDI fills that gap before you’re ready to work with a manufacturer.” And that definitely happens, she adds. “We’ve certainly had people come through and outgrow us.”

Echoes Makovsky: “We’re trying to keep the industry here, number one, in America, and, number two, in this region. We don’t want people to go to L.A. or New York or Dallas.”

Compared to Gibson’s 2003 arrival in Colorado, there’s a much more mature cut-and-sew industry on the Front Range. “There are so many places to go to work now,” she says. “I do think DDI’s a part of it.”

A workout for the mind

Established in 2009, Solid State Depot is now in its third space, a spot in an industrial park in northeast Boulder. “It’s gotten bigger each time,” says President Brandon Skari, noting that another move could be coming soon. About 65 members pay monthly dues of $65 for an individual or $100 for a family. Students pay $25 a month. Projects range from paraphernalia for Burning Man to light displays to self-driving cars.

Skari has been a regular at Solid State Depot since 2013. “I got involved in some projects and have stuck around ever since,” he laughs, and likens it to exercise: Rather than lifting weights, it’s a workout for one’s maker muscles. “It’s like a gym membership,” he says. “You could buy a treadmill, but you need to store it somewhere.”

Tom Germon is the founder and president of The Gizmo Dojo, a makerspace set to launch in Broomfield soon. “At the moment, we’re looking for space,” he says, citing a need for about 1,500 square feet of industrial. “We want to make a lot of dust and make a lot of noise.” He plans to charge monthly individual dues of $50 and host classes, splitting profits with instructors.

“The whole maker movement is exploding right now,” says Germon, noting that The Gizmo Dojo has a core group of about 25 people. “We’ve got interest from people who are just out of college who have an idea and just getting started. We’ve got interest from retired folks who want to pass their knowledge on to others. That’s our two biggest groups.”

Germon adds, “Community is a big part of it. You can come in and say, ‘I’m having problems with this LED. Can somebody give me some advice?'”

It’s all about learning how to create through trial and error. “The educational system we have in the U.S. is very test-based, not exploration-based,” he says. “One of the big things I want to pursue is celebrating failure.” The tight-knit community of makerspaces in Colorado has the potential to not only catalyze this mindset — a necessity for iterative development — but also to close the skills gap by working with public and private entities.

Leben points to cross-generational collaboration at Loveland CreatorSpace. “We have retired machinists in the space teaching skills to younger people,” he says. Keysight Technologies provided the space a test bench for QA and sends employees to help makers use it. And the space offers classes ranging from coding to metalworking. Such skills can offer a career launchpad, Leben adds. “There’s demand everywhere for them.”

Denhac’s Hendershot credits the Colorado Maker Hub. “They’ve been living up to their name, trying to unite all of the spaces and coordinate,” he says.

He highlights a recent Nation of Makers meeting held in the West Wing of the White House. “Colorado was really well-represented,” says Hendershot, who attended with Elise VanDyne of Colorado Maker Hub, TinkerMill’s Thomas, CreatorSpace’s Leben, and Steve Undy of Fort Collins Creator Hub.

Nation of Makers aims to “support spaces all over the United States,” Hendershot adds. “They [White House officials] see the maker movement as a Band-Aid to a lot of different issues.” He cites a national decline in inventiveness that’s supported by hard data. “Our workforce isn’t current on things like 3D printers,” he says.

Leben says the meeting was a galvanizing event. “It’s since spawned a lot of collaboration,” he says. “We’re going to have a much better go of it if spaces work together regionally.”

Makerspaces in Colorado

Denhac / / Denver

Denver Design Incubator / / Denver

Fort Collins Creator Hub / / Fort Collins

The Gizmo Dojo / / Broomfield

Loveland CreatorSpace / / Loveland

Phoenix Asylum / / Boulder

Pikes Peak Makerspace / / Colorado Springs

Solid State Depot / / Boulder

TinkerMill / / Longmont