user-friendly workshops bring high-tech maker world down to earth

The high-tech maker trend, with all those purring machines and mysterious electronics, can be downright intimidating -- unless you're in the 216. Between the user-friendly TechCentral in Cleveland Public Library (CPL), to the cutting-edge enclaves of Case Western Reserve University's Think[box], Clevelanders can dive headlong into the tech world armed with little more than a thimbleful of curiosity.
The People's University Goes High-Tech
Hear the words "circuit board" or "power supply" and beads of perspiration likely form on your upper lip. Move up to three-dimensional printing or Linux (huh?) and you might feel as if aliens are about to attack. Don't worry, there's an app for that, and you're going to love it. CPL's gorgeous new TechCentral space, which opened last year, will have you making in no time -- and loving it.
"Because we have such a large patron group, many don't understand the idea of making," says TechCentral Manager CJ Lynce. "We're really trying to get them to connect and be creative."
Let's start with the MakerBot Replicator 2. Relax -- it won't eat you. It's a 3D desktop printer, and if CPL Director Felton Thomas can take this futuristic machine on the road for a live display at TEDxCLE, the least you can do is go visit it at the library. It's fascinating to watch. But if you're feeling brave, ask any TechCentral staffer (they'll be in bright orange lab coats) about printing your own 3D objects -- just like a slew of kids and grandmas did last year in the Make Your Own Cookie Cutter class. So far, patrons have cranked out cell phone plug covers, grocery bag holders, mini Thinkers (sorry, Rodin) and chess sets.
"We've had architects come in and print out buildings they designed," says Lynce. "They wanted a 3D model to keep for themselves." Inventors, he adds, can circumvent traditional prototyping courtesy of CPL's MakerBot. "They design their model and normally they'd have to send it off to a company that's going to take two or three weeks or more to print it. They can bring us that file and we can print in plastic in about a week."
Next up: those adorable maker's kits. Even the most tech-challenged among us won't be able to resist slapping together the "Space War" project on a Snap Circuit, or getting their diode glow on with a Little Bit. Try blasting a beat on Korg Monotron mini music synthesizer (think tiny electronic keyboard) or just snapping together a personal sized skyscraper with a K'NEX kit. Each one is friendly, safe, appealing and all you need is a library card to have at it.
"You can use them anywhere in the library for about three hours," says Lynce.
The possibilities don't stop there. Cloud computing devices, Linux and Apple machines (five each) and a whole army of Windows machines (80!) along with all the associated software are ready and waiting for inquisitive hands. As for mobile devices, how'd you like to test out an iPad, Nook, GPS or other device? Go ahead and check them out for a week from the Tech Toy Box.
Of course this is the People's University, so expect instructional classes on everything from a basic Internet course to advanced Microsoft Office classes. Save for a nominal fee for 3D printing, it's all free.
Lynce reports that Eureka! moments for both kids and adults are common occurrences at TechCentral.
"You see the spark in their eyes and you know they have ideas. You can see the gears turning in their heads," he says. "It's moments like that -- the inspiration of kids and adults -- that's what I live for."
The Hackerspace: A 21st-Century Garage Shop
Everyone knows one of those guys. Tinkerers who can build their own computers, debug others and even fix the cord on your curling iron. In Cleveland, they've banded together to form the Makers' Alliance, and their hackerspace is nestled within the massive 13,000-square foot back-of-house operation at LaunchHouse. Back when the building was an auto dealership, the space housed the service bays. Call that a perfect marriage.
Attend any Tuesday night open house and you'll meet a brilliant if quirky crew that creates everything from interactive fire art to a mushroom grow house. They work amid scattered tools, boxes of eviscerated electronics, beer-making kettles, and odds and ends like an amputated robotic arm.
But sometimes even this self-reliant operation needs a little help beyond its grass roots. So where do the hacking elite go when they need to engage the big guns? Case Western Reserve University's Think[box], the holy grail of making in the 216.
"Anyone in the community can go and use their tools," says Makers' Alliance co-founder and member Dave Walton. "And they have some really nice tools."
Thinking Inside the Box
Whether you're out to build an autonomous robot or construct ornate paper hats to hand out to kids at Parade the Circle, the possibilities are endless inside this box. And as incredible as this space is, it's just a prototype.
While plans for a massive 50,000-square-foot Think[box] percolate, the current 3,000-square-foot facility (which will soon expand to 4,500-square-feet) hums with a dizzying array of equipment, all of which is top-of-the-line, cutting-edge, and available for use by the general public.
You heard that right: Anybody can step into Think[box] when it's open and use the nearly $1 million worth of equipment, including a large-format poster printer, an array of electronic bench equipment and a stereo inspection microscope that makes it possible to conduct highly sophisticated soldering on a circuit board.
"I don't know any university in the world that would even consider getting something like this," says Think[box] Operations Manager Ian Charnas of the $13,000 microscope. Allowing public access to this caliber of equipment is what sets Think[box] far -- far -- apart from universities like Yale, Harvard, MIT and Stanford.
"Typically in universities, if you want to use the cool stuff, you have to be part of the old boys' club or pull favor trades," says Charnas. Not so at Think[box], which boasts a generous schedule of public hours. "Those doors are open 52 hours a week."
There's high-tech stuff for the tech-averse, too. The Epilog laser cutter is one of the most powerful models on the market, yet it's remarkably accessible.
"This machine is very easy to use," Charnas says of the apparatus that sliced out those fancy paper hats. "You put in your piece of wood or plastic, you draw something on the screen and you literally hit file, print. It's that easy."  
Charnas says the machine is perfect for somebody just starting out, but advanced users benefit as well.  He cites a team that used the machine to cut balsa wood cross sections for an eight-foot aircraft wingspan, a process that otherwise would have to be done by hand and taken countless hours.
Everything is free save for nominal material stocking fees. Training is required and depends on the equipment. In some cases, users must take an online tutorial. Other machines might require taking a free onsite class.
Owing to cost and sophistication, three machines in Think[box] are available to the public only in a vicarious sense. Users supply the appropriate information to a staffer, who then produces the object. These rules apply to the circuit board router and two state-of-the-art 3D printers.
"Nobody wants to be the one to break these machines," says Charnas. "I don't want to put people in that position."
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Think[box] is the friendly feel of the space, which is due in no small part to Charnas and the 25 teaching assistants who run the operation. Everything is clearly marked, there are no "stupid" questions, and encouragement is king.
"If there are any creative people out there, I really want to encourage them to come visit Case and see if you like it," says Charnas. "Whether you’re a person considering college or you're with a company or you're just a person who makes stuff, this is a great environment. There are a lot of funding opportunities and a lot of smart, clever, fun people to work with. The atmosphere here is extremely supportive."
 Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.