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The Making Of Bellingham’s First Makerspace

How much do YOU know about makerspaces? If the answer is “not a whole lot”, prepare to be educated.

Let’s start with the basics. A makerspace is a place where people with common interests can get together to socialize and collaborate on projects. Makerspaces originally began as part of larger institutions, open to members of an affiliated university, institution, or company. In the mid 90s, the first unaffiliated makerspaces started popping up around the world, offering their services to anyone who wanted a membership. Metalab, which opened in Vienna in 2006, is credited with establishing the membership model most spaces now use. By the mid 2000s, more chain-oriented spaces like TechLab had established themselves, shifting the emphasis from co-op to business.

Despite that transformation, however, the core concept of a community-oriented location for working on creative projects remains. The space provides a suite of different tools, digital and mechanical, which members can use to work on their projects. Sounds like the kind of thing that would fit very well in Bellingham, right? That’s what the owners of The Foundry thought too.

Minecraft head on mannequin

The Foundry opened up in September under the combined leadership of Mary Keane, Jason Davies, and Troy Grieg. Keane originally had the idea to open a makerspace while working as a pediatric occupational therapist, when she decided to 3D print a splint for a little girl she was working with. Keane and Davies were introduced by local creator Ivan Owen, himself renowned for designing and creating the first fully functional 3D-printed finger prostheses for children. The two found a mutual interest in creating a local community for project collaboration, the result of which is now Bellingham’s first official makerspace.

The Foundry is a remarkable place. It functions similarly to a gym, in that members pay a monthly fee for access to the equipment. Currently the “equipment” includes six plastic 3D printers, one paper 3D printer, a metal stamping machine, several sewing machines, a laser cutter, and a host of computers loaded with design software. The owners are also waiting on an order of four new fully enclosed 3D printers, which should increase the variety of filaments that can be printed.

In addition to the currently operational tools, The Foundry will soon offer a space for wood and metalworking as well. Pending the the installation of a few necessary outlets and safety features, members will also be able to use an in-shop metal lathe, several varieties of electric saw, and a host of more exotic power tools.

The Creative Types

Foundry 3D printers on counter

Some Of The Foundry’s 3D Printers

The core demographic of a makerspace is the community’s true craftspeople, and Bellingham has no shortage of those. Membership rates at The Foundry have grown slowly but steadily since opening, and many regular attendees do more than just create for fun. Regulars include people creating for their online Etsy businesses, product designers working on prototypes, and engineering graduates who no longer have access to university labs.

Some of the most interesting projects that have been done at The Foundry include:

  • Turning old ammunition boxes into waterproof speakers
  • Microchip skin implants that can unlock your car (no more forgetting your keys!)
  • A fully functional 3D printed guitar
  • Laser inscribing a complex design on sugar cookies (we’re told it smelled amazing)

While adults make up the primary market for the makerspace, the founders are also involved in educational efforts for younger folks. Keane especially is very passionate about bringing art and fun back into STEM education. The Foundry staff recently wrapped up a several month program at Happy Valley Elementary where they taught 5th grade students the basics of designing and creating solar-powered reading lights. The students shared the process via video letter with a partner classroom in Nicaragua, where the students often still use kerosene lamps at home.

The makerspace also has an entirely separate kids area complete with legos, basic tools and engineering toys, and an arcade game. The long-term intent is to make the space a hub for family education as well as for creation. Towards that end, The Foundry will be hosting a Disney Imagineer who will be speaking at events in February and April.

Forging A Community

Foundry Front of Shop with guitar

The Front Desk And 3D Printed Guitar

Once the wood/metal workshop is finished and the new 3D printers come in, The Foundry will be equipped to handle almost any project locals can dream up. The next step is making sure that people know that the Foundry’s resources are available to them.

So far, the owners have largely relied on social media and word of mouth to make the makerspace known to the public. Part of that process involves sharing finished pieces and bringing in new people to collaborate with, but existing communities can be somewhat insular. What Keane envisions for the future of The Foundry is a gathering place for people with skills sets from all the area’s different workshops; a place where a member of The Hub Community Bike Shop might, for example, work on a project with someone from The Bellingham Metal Arts Guild.

Hopefully that ideal community will continue to develop as The Foundry gains recognition in the area. In the meantime, the staff are focused on furthering their educational efforts and forging partnerships with other local organizations. One project on the board for the owners is working with a plastic recycling business based in Vancouver BC, converting their waste plastic from 3D printing back into raw filament. They have also applied to become part of the MIT Fab Labs program, which would allow them to teach 6-month MIT video courses. If accepted, they would be the only MIT Fab Lab location in the PNW outside of Simon Fraser University in BC.

Do you have an awesome project idea that you could test out at The Foundry? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section!

Tobias Osterhaug

Tobias Osterhaug

Tobias is a full-time contributor to Bellingham Business News, covering local business events, tech news, and advice for job seekers in the Bellingham area. He graduated from Western Washington University with a double major in History and Chinese Language & Cultural Studies, and has previously worked as a coordinator in Western’s Writing Center.

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