Boston’s Fueling the Future of Robotics, Hacking and Community

Quick!   What do robots, bicycles, art, and the Boston community have in common?  If you said “they all need to be made by someone,” you’re right.  So wouldn’t it be fun if we could make all those things in one place, together?  Well, a startup venture called the Artisan’s Asylum, just a few blocks from me here in Somerville, is doing just that: bringing makers of all stripes together under one roof.

Welder at work

courtesy John Dill

I joined a tour of the place just this week, and I was struck how many innovations I saw in just 60 minutes.   Every member has their own particular project, but all together what they’re really making is the future!

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Here are the 4 roles that the Artisan’s Asylum plays, and quick notes about why they’re so forward-thinking.  I’ll wrap up by listing a handful of specific projects that I think are noteworthy, although I admit I haven’t seen even half of what’s happening there.  Do you have anything like this where you are?  Let us know in the comments!

Framed photos of art projects

Sample projects (click for full size)

1. Shared Manufacturing Shop.  In a purely physical sense, the asylum is a 40,000-square-foot warehouse filled with specialized equipment for making things out of metal, wood, glass, and fabric, or for putting together sculptures, computers, bicycles and more.  With few exceptions, the organization owns none of this capital.  Instead, it’s all leased from the group’s members.  By sharing costly machines with one another, as well as buying supplies in bulk, members have access to a huge variety of cool stuff they couldn’t get otherwise.

2. Accessible Workspace.  Lots of people like to make stuff, but building a giant robot in your closet can be challenging.  So the Asylum provides a “hackerspace” for creators.  There are areas for jewelers, welders, furniture makers, painters, and sculptors.  There’s enough space to support an on-site bicycle design shop, a big fat 3D printer, and an aisle of individual storage areas.  By acquiring such a large space and sharing it, creative projects have a place to live and grow, at a very low cost.

3. Classroom.  The artisans and makers who occupy the space possess a wealth of knowledge.  Fortunately, they’re happy to share.  As of this week, you can sign up for instruction in chainmail construction, Arduino programming, or how to build a Tesla coil – see the full class list for much more.  Knowledge-sharing is an awesome way to boost tangible skills and expertise.

4. Community and collaboration.  Keeping all these disparate creators under one roof is not just a bid for efficiency.  It also gives them a chance to talk, share and collaborate with one another.  Cross-disciplinary pollination can be a boon to scientific research, and may even increase the chances of a breakthrough.  I’m sure the same is true for creative endeavors.  (And see Netsquared Boston for a similar mash-up of technology and social justice).

“The creative process isn’t just about having the right skills, tools and materials.  More important… is a mutually supportive and inspiring community in which to create.” – from the brochure

The Result

Ultimately, all of these things come together to create a garden where creativity can flourish, with a little hard work.  And that means it’s fertile ground for growing the future, as well.  I’ll end the post by pointing out a couple of specific Asylum projects that intrigue me.

Giant robot leg

The t-shirt reads “Giant Robots. Because life isn’t dangerous enough.”

Giant Robot – The leg you see pictured above is going to be just one of 6, supporting a huge robot called the Hexapod.  Besides the inherent coolness of a huge, 6-legged metal machine, this project is innovative because of its funding: the money comes from a combination of kickstarter pledges and fees from robot-building classes.

Tiny, very simple robot

It needs no programming at all

Biomimetic bots – these little robots are automated and mobile, and they move toward light the same way a moth does.

Huge rack of bicycles

These are just the conventional bikes.

Bicycle Design – the bike shop I mentioned above is run by a crack team of bikers who not only build and repair bicycles, but create and build their own unique designs.  Perhaps the bicycle of the future will be born here.

Anyway, you get the idea.  How about you – do you like places like this?  What other innovative communities have you heard about?  Tell us about it in the comment section.

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