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Behind the Scenes of a Makerspace

The Rutgers University Makerspace has become a hub of creativity on campus. Here’s how it manages operations, equipment, projects and more.

Four years ago, Rutgers University in New Jersey opened the Rutgers Makerspace — a place where students, faculty, staff and other members of the community can learn to use equipment such as 3D scanners and printers, laser cutters, cutting and milling machines, electronics, and power and hand tools, for both university-related and personal projects. Here’s how the space has evolved into a bustling hub of creativity on campus.

How the Makerspace Operates

Rick Anderson, co-director of the Rutgers Makerspace, had previously co-founded the community hackerspace Fubar Labs before the university recruited him to help launch its own makerspace. "We started out on a shoestring budget. I would take a big chunk of my time and be there in person, and then I had student workers who started taking over stations and learning the various areas, and we started developing certification processes," said Anderson.

The makerspace is open Monday through Friday from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. During those hours, there are two or three student staff members working at a time. They provide basic training, offer guidance on projects and manage the space. Once users receive the initial  training, they become "certified" on a particular piece of equipment and can drop in to use it independently.

One of the student staff members is Mohit Chaudhary, who started working at the Rutgers Makerspace as an undergraduate student. He's now a graduate student and the manager of the facility. "We show them how to [use the equipment], and then we help walk them through it the first couple of times, but after that, they're certified," said Chaudhary. "If somebody asks how to use the machine, I'll say, 'You know how to use the machine. You do it yourself, and if you really have a question, then we'll help you.' We don't want to do the work for students when this empowers them to learn a new set of skills that can drive their creativity."

Types of Equipment in the Makerspace

Because virtually anyone on campus can come in and get certified on the equipment, things do get broken from time to time. "Our goal is to have the types of machines that students can use themselves, rather than expensive machines that require an engineer to run them," said Anderson. "We try to pick tools and equipment that are approachable, touchable and breakable."

Those machines and tools include two LulzBot Mini 3D printers, a SeeMeCNC Orion Delta printer, a FormLabs 1+ resin printer, a ShopBot CNC machine (computer-controlled machining tool), a laser cutter and a variety of power and hand tools. The makerspace is approximately 2,000 square feet with an open community room surrounded by smaller rooms that house the various types of equipment. There's a 3D printing room, a laser cutting room, a CNC room, a form labs and casting room, a tool room and an electronics room. The electronics room offers a variety of motors, sensors, microcontrollers and related electronics, including Teensy, Arduino and Adafruit Trinket microcontroller boards, and Raspberry Pi single-board computers.

There's no fee to use the space and the university provides a limited quantity of consumable materials at no charge, although electronics such as microcontrollers have to be returned when a project is finished, and other materials, such as LEDs or resistors, are available for purchase or to borrow. "Currently there's no fee to use the space, and we want to keep it open because otherwise people decide it's a service and get upset because you didn't service them well enough," said Anderson.

Makerspace Projects

Chaudhary estimates that about 60 to 70 percent of the time people use the makerspace for university-related projects. For instance, a stem cell researcher at the university collaborated with one of the makerspace's student staff members to develop custom 3D models of tools for sorting stem cells under a microscope. Biomedical and chemical engineers at the university have been using the makerspace's laser cutter to cut tunnels into acrylic material for microfluidic projects, such as turbulence studies and blood filtering. And a faculty member from the university's dental school worked with a student staff member to model a new type of orthodontic brace. Some of those projects are being commercialized and others have patents pending.

When people aren't using the makerspace for university-related projects, they use it for personal or recreational projects. The Rutgers Formula Racing team uses the makerspace every year to create a car from scratch using the ShopBot CNC machine. A student at the university used one of the 3D printers to create his own Halo videogame helmet as a Halloween costume. In other instances, people scavenge parts from broken makerspace equipment and repurpose them for their own projects. A group of students took apart one of the makerspace's defunct 3D printers and made a "crazy cell phone mover device," as Anderson describes it. The device had a motorized bed for the cell phone and could drive over to the cell phone charger and plug it in. "They learned a lot by disassembling and then reassembling in a new way," added Anderson.

Overcoming Challenges

One thing that's clear is that the makerspace is an increasingly popular resource for the Rutgers University community. To accommodate the demand, it has begun testing a reservation system. "At this point, especially with more students learning that we are a highly accessible resource for them, we've started trying out reservations when a student or group needs to use a machine for two to three hours," said Chaudhary. "We block out that time for them to come in and use a machine."

Another challenge the Rutgers Makerspace is facing: how to maintain that do-it-yourself focus rather than evolving into a design or consulting service. "We don't want to do the work for them," said Chaudhary. "We want them to learn the hard lessons and go through the arduous process of being frustrated and searching for solutions and hacking through it to earn that victory themselves. There's great merit in that kind of turmoil."

Community Outreach

The Rutgers Makerspace team has been sharing its lessons learned with other organizations in the New Jersey area, such as schools and libraries, that want to introduce the maker philosophy into their own environment. "We give them a tour and show them the different resources we have and give an outline of how we generally operate, and they get a good idea as to what is attainable for them — and we help them with that process if they need any further assistance," said Chaudhary.

The Rutgers Makerspace team also runs programs for community-based organizations, such as local 4-H programs, Boys and Girls Clubs and groups for individuals with special needs. "We usually try to have some sort of summer workshop where the students come in, get a tour of the space and build something to get them more interested in STEM activities," said Chaudhary.

Evolution of the Makerspace

The Rutgers Makerspace has been growing and evolving since its inception four years ago, first by bringing in student staff members and then by developing and implementing some policies and procedures. "In fits and starts, we got ourselves up and running into the current vision," said Anderson.

Now the makerspace is facing another phase of its evolution. The makerspace is funded through the Division of Continuing Studies, but it recently had to introduce a cap on materials to keep afloat. "Instead of saying 3D prints are free, we had to say, the first 80 grams are free. After that, we're losing on our material costs," said Anderson. "So we've introduced the ability for students to actually buy materials and get electronic parts and things that help keep the place essentially at an even basis when it comes to the consumables."

The Rutgers Makerspace team is currently looking at ways to partner with classes, offering courses and workshops and teaming up with organizations outside the university. "Honestly, we're in the middle of a major thinking about ourselves," said Anderson. "We're at the end of the semester, so we're trying to come to terms with all of the different demands. One thing that's remained clear at every level is that this is an important thing to the university. I think the space itself is becoming a permanent fixture, but the way the university supports it has been under flux."

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