Jordie Smith's wings aren't working. He crosses his arms, lets a short pop of breath leak from his lips.
The four thin, black carbon rods that he has attached to a headless mannequin, via an elaborate thorax of gears and pulleys, are supposed to spin in figure eights. They make up the centerpiece of a woman-sized-wasp Halloween costume that Smith has been commissioned to build. To make wings out of the rods, Smith plans to cover them in rubberized fabric. But first they need to move.
"That's the first law of robotics," says Dave Dalton, a lanky man whose face at this moment is obscured by the mask portion of Smith's incomplete costume. He sits on a stool nearby and reminds Smith of another axiom, one about demonstrating an invention: "Your robot will never work when you want to show someone what it does."
Smith reddens and fidgets with the gears and the casings. After a small click, the robot wings spring to life. They gain speed over the next few seconds until they're moving fast enough to shake the dummy's torso.
"I saw something like this on the Internet," Smith says. "But the wings only went up and down. This is the seventh version I'm working on. I think it's going to work."
"That's what I love about kids like Jordie," Dalton says. "They haven't had their dreams crushed yet."
If there's a haven for locals like Smith right now, it's Hammerspace, Dalton's workshop at 440 East 63rd Street. The 6,500-square-foot brick building, which previously housed an AT&T telecommunications center, is now a hacker space — a community-oriented work space where 90 members pay $40 per month (or $400 per year) to access power tools and lasers and share their knowledge. It's where a 21-year-old movie usher can go if he wants to spend his afternoons building mechanized wasp wings.
According to hackerspaces.org, Hammerspace (named, Dalton says, for the "magical dimension from which small anime girls produce large and ridiculous weapons") is one of 154 active hacker spaces in the United States, all of which have opened in the past five years. Each is part of the maker movement — the latest iteration of the do-it-yourself culture, centered on a belief in getting back to building and repairing objects.
It's a rebellion against the notion that technology is disposable. Makers prize practical skill above blueprint innovation — they want to extend the lives of objects, bring them back to life, find new uses for them. That's why, at Hammerspace, a 60-year-old woman is learning to rivet next to a 30-year-old man who has recently taken up embroidery.
Hacker workshops like Hammerspace are loosely organized within the nonprofit School Factory's Space Federation program, which provides support and consulting on items such as insurance, permitting and liability. But the very nature of hacker spaces defies a clear organizational structure.
"Each space has its own personality," says Willow Brugh, the co-founder of the Space Federation and director of the entrepreneur-mentoring project Geeks Without Bounds. "If we had homogeneous spaces, that would kill the movement."
Hammerspace is a work in progress. Dalton doesn't know yet what his year-old venture might become. But he knows that it's already a de facto business incubator, housing Dalton's own plantation-shutter business, Craig Berscheidt's laser-cutting operation (Built to Spec), and another dozen potential ventures from the 2012 class of the e-Scholars Program at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
"There are more schools that don't have resources than do," Dalton says. "And there's this next generation of creative individuals who don't have the tools to express themselves. Hopefully places like this can provide something for them."
Outside Hammerspace, there's a can't-miss-it red concrete hammer in the grass along 63rd Street. Behind a chain-link gate, Dalton's black-and-white Ford Crown Victoria stands out among the pickup trucks in the parking lot. The Kansas vanity plate reads: ELWOOD. Wooden pallets are stacked near the front door, next to an antique milk can and an engine block. Everything is in a state of almost.
Squinting in the sunlight, Dalton holds open the front door and steps inside. The conversation tracks what his blue eyes flit across. An aluminum owl has been fashioned from the empty soda cans that fill a refrigerator-sized box in the hallway. A tabletop arcade game is in need of a new power source. A T-shirt-spewing Howitzer — the kind of air-pressurized, goody-firing contraption familiar from Royals games — has been retrofitted with an attached seat. The upholstery pattern: camouflage.
"We used it to shoot off foam footballs and whatever else we could think to launch on the Fourth of July," Dalton says.
One side of the hallway is taken up with the more day-to-day things that generate some revenue to fund Hammerspace's fitful build-out. The construction schedule has so far been determined mainly by available materials — items donated by members — and cash on hand. To make money, there's a concession stand that sells pizza, corn dogs, sodas and a sandwich called the Kevin Smith (a grilled homage to the lo-fi movie director: peanut butter, marshmallow and bacon on white bread). Dalton's wife, Beck, runs the food side of the operation from the building's modified kitchenette. She also sells reusable grocery bags that she makes from T-shirts.
Another 10 feet down the hall is the latest addition to Hammerspace, a shop with glass counters and metal racks where Dalton sells small electronic kits and filament for the half-dozen 3-D printers in various states of completion here.
The printers use that filament to render digital models as fully formed objects. In traditional manufacturing, raw materials must be machined down to create a product; 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, lowers the cost of prototyping to the price of that filament. A digital design — made on software such as CAD — can take fast and inexpensive physical form at Hammerspace, generated, layer by layer, in plastic (Dalton's most common filament) or metal or virtually any other material.
Printers like these run as much as $5 million, but Hammerspace's whole 3-D fleet cost a fraction of this. One reason for this: one 3-D printer can produce the parts for another 3-D printer. Among the things 3-D printing has given us over the past year are a burrito (made on a grad student's "BurritoBot") and a prosthetic jaw. In a sign of just how widespread the technology is, Jay Leno uses it to build rare parts for his collection of classic cars.
The technology, which has been around for the past 30 years, is now regularly cited as the digital equivalent of the industrial revolution — and talked about as one way to reverse the trend of outsourced manufacturing. Wohlers Associates, a Colorado-based consulting firm, estimates that the 3-D-printing business has doubled since 2007, becoming a $1.7 billion industry.
But additive manufacturing isn't going to put a roof over Hammerspace's metal shop.
"We've been trying to get a roof over the metal shop for a year and a half, but we got this together in just three weeks," Dalton says.
Half of Hammerspace is made up of three rooms, each crammed with geek memorabilia, enough power tools to start a secondhand hardware store, and mismatched furniture of a certain college-apartment aesthetic. The room closest to the front door is for woodworking and molding.
"You don't go out and buy a new machine because you want to make a new coffee table. You just go out and buy the coffee table," Dalton says. "But if you have access to the guys that know how to make a coffee table, and it will just cost you a $10 sheet of plywood and an afternoon, that changes the equation."
Dalton picks up a severed latex arm, an unintentional lesson in shop safety. It's for an upcoming class on how to build zombies. (Members regularly host evening sessions on riveting, casting and coding.) He hopes to marshal an army of the rubber undead for Halloween, ready to jitter like extras in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, their arms and legs made to shudder with PVC pipes and sprinkler parts.
"The idea is to make it purposefully low-tech, designed from things you might actually have around your house," Dalton says.
In the nearby "big room," Dalton puts on meetings and Thursday-night open houses. Stools with duct-tape-covered seats ring a flock of raised wooden tables where electronic components are stashed like products in a Kmart clearance aisle. Three kinds of Mountain Dew are visible. A brown couch is positioned before a huge projection television that was the recent test screen for a homemade Etch A Sketch.
"This is like being in six vocational classes at once," Dalton says. "There's always somebody here to tell you what you're doing wrong."
He steps into another little cell, this one tucked between shelves of parts in the corner opposite the old TV. This is the kids' room, he says, a space-themed play area. It's dominated by a shiny metal box with dozens of buttons, tubes and LED lights: the Quantum Encabulator, a blinking, beeping machine that he designed for this year's Maker Faire at Union Station.
"This is a miniature version of my son's spaceship room at home," Dalton says.
"It's the only finished room in the house," Beck cracks, watching one of their two sons build a tower from LEGO bricks. The table saw that was in their driveway more often than not irked the couple's Leawood neighbors. It was Beck who suggested that perhaps the time had come for Dalton to find, in his drive to build, a place for his equipment besides the family home.
"I was just imagining a storage facility with outlets," she says. "Maybe a man cave, a place where you could just close the door when everything was done."
Instead, Dalton opened Hammerspace.
Everybody in my lineage got in trouble for taking toys apart when they were kids," Dalton says. "It's not enough to know that something works. We want to know why and how."
One of his grandfathers, Lee Spruill, was an aeronautical engineer with TWA, overseeing the airline's overhaul base in Kansas City. His version of retirement was to build a steam-powered car out of an old white Ford Pinto, its dual tailpipes roaring through sleepy St. Petersburg, Florida. (Theatricality also runs in the family.)
As a child actor, Dalton played Merlin in a Coterie Theatre production and ran through the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in Bonner Springs as a pickpocket attempting to steal coin purses from nobles. In high school, he produced jewelry in a shop class and he showed some of it to the fest's blacksmith, who was impressed enough to invite the boy to apprentice.
"He told me his last apprentice had run off with the test-of-strength girl," Dalton says.
Following his 1991 graduation from Shawnee Mission East High School, Dalton spent the next three years on the festival circuit, learning to forge steel and make swords, knives and handles.
"I found my crowd," he says. "It is a place where handcrafted art is still celebrated and rewarded and purchased at prices that are indicative of the level of physical labor that's been put into it."
After a shop fire claimed his tools, though, Dalton got off the ride in his hometown. Looking for an employee discount to purchase new tools, he stopped into Ranch Mart Ace Hardware and handed a job application to the woman behind the counter. His phone rang later that night.
"Beck called and said there's bad news and good news," Dalton recalls. " 'The bad news is, they're not going to hire you. The good news is that there's a consolation prize: You win a date with me.' " The two have been a couple for 18 years.
Around the time he began dating Beck, Dalton enrolled in Johnson County Community College to study interior design. His brother, Scott, had recently gone to work for Valve, the Seattle video-game designer, and Dalton thought that he'd take over his father's interior-design business. Jim Dalton moved on, though, and Dalton eventually learned the plantation-shutter trade from another local businessman, whose factory he took over in 2008.
Looking for a place to both anchor his shutter operation and store his growing arsenal of tools, Dalton settled on the disused telecom building in Brookside. Moving into it required a one-man Maker Faire, though. The place had been stripped of its valuable copper wire, and the roof leaked. He patched holes in the wall and, with help, routed a new air-conditioning system around the old one.
He was always aware of the property's benefits — not least, a transformer capable of a 1,200-amp output. (By comparison, the average house constructed within the past 70 years probably has a 200-amp breaker panel.) What he needed next was a community.
In the Cowtown Computer Congress, a group dedicated to bringing together Kansas City–area technology enthusiasts, he found a tributary for the network he envisioned. At first, CCCKC, which started in 2008, was truly underground, holding its early meetings — including classes on soldering and coding within walls of exposed rock — in the caves at 3101 Mercier. This was Kansas City's first hacker space.
Dalton, an early visitor to those subterranean gatherings, proposed a change of venue last year. Today, a CCCKC membership comes with a pass to use Hammerspace. Hacking is now aboveground.
Indicative of Hammerspace's surfacing is its informal partnership with the e-Scholars Program within the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, at UMKC's Henry W. Bloch School of Management. Tom Boozer, the program's associate director, visited a Thursday open house this past April.
"I walked in and I knew I was in the right place," Boozer says. "We had been looking for this for two years. We needed resources to help people execute a cool idea."
In Hammerspace, Boozer saw the same ethos that he had cultivated over his decade-long career as an industrial designer.
"This is the kind of place where somebody who doesn't necessarily have the skills in production can go and plug into a community of people who do know that stuff and, more importantly, want to help people do that stuff," he says. "It's as much about community as anything else."
On a Thursday in late August, Nick Woods stands astride that antique milk can on the Hammerspace grounds. It's not just a bit of farm kitsch. Until recently, it was what the members here used to smelt metal.
As the sun shines down on his buzz cut, the 30-year-old medical-equipment repair specialist adjusts a pair of glasses straight out of a 1965 NASA control room. Inside the milk can is a band of ceramic fireproofing material and a cracked clay pot. "This was the foundry for aluminum before Dave got the new smelter," he explains.
The new smelter arrived the previous week. Dalton had found one for sale online. The resulting transaction was of a kind increasingly common here.
"A guy came over and sold me the smelter," Dalton says. "An hour later, I got a phone call, and he asked if he could give me back his money to buy a membership. I think Craigslist is my best membership tool."
The aluminum comes from the pallets of empty soda cans, vessels for the hackers' sugary fuel. The scrap will become figurines, ingots or whatever else members want to make from it. As Woods works, fellow maker Paul Leonard, 41, approaches, and the two reminisce about the first brass project in the homemade foundry.
"The first cat didn't make it," Leonard says. "The brass was like cottage cheese. I think we just didn't get the metal hot enough."
Leonard learned to make jewelry at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay nearly two decades ago. He had spent the better part of two months carving this mold, loosely based on five cats that share the house with Leonard and his wife, Jennifer.
"I don't know why we didn't use something else as a test run," Woods says. "Still, it's amazing how many things work the first time we try them."
Trial and error is how things work at Hammerspace. Usually, there's enough material on hand to make it through several errors. "It's the hacker aesthetic," Dalton says. "We re-use something until there's nothing left."
Maybe the best illustration of how everything here comes together is the drinking fountain in the front hallway. It was dry when Dalton bought the building, the valve blocked by lime. A new valve would be costly and would need to be retooled to fit the fountain, an older model. The simple answer: Abandon the implement and bring bottled water. At Hammerspace, though, a problem like this is an opportunity.
Dalton brought an idea to Craig Berscheidt, a member and de facto shop teacher here: Substitute an electric valve. Oh, and hook it up to an old arcade game's push button.
"This is how most projects start here," Dalton says. "Somebody says something, then somebody one-ups them. Everyone makes these weird little enhancements."
"And 15 minutes later, you have the best idea ever," Berscheidt adds.
The two men opened the fountain's guts and decided to add more than a valve. They rigged a series of peristaltic pumps (donated by a member eager to clear out his garage), to be powered by stepper motors. The motors, controlled by a test board that Berscheidt borrowed from another project, would regulate the flow through the valve.
"We just accumulate other people's junk until it's time to build," Berscheidt says. "The crux of an idea is always in somebody's basement."
The fountain not only works now but also dispenses two flavors at the toggle of a switch. One is Brawndo (water infused with drops of the energy-boost product MiO Energy Green Thunder) — a reference to the ubiquitous Gatorade-like sports drink that provides electrolytes to the citizens of the future in Mike Judge's Idiocracy. The other fluid is what the Hammerspace natives call "toilet water": standard municipal H2O.
"Our UPS guy came in and asked if this was a new kind of drink," Dalton says. "He looked at the two options and told us he didn't want to drink toilet water. Then he picked Brawndo, went back for a second drink and told us it was pretty good. I'd call that a success."
Pranking the delivery guy makes a good anecdote, but Dalton knows that Hammerspace won't succeed without serious and sustained interaction with nonhacking Kansas City.
"He sold his Volkswagen to fund the garage shop that built the computer that we walk around with in our pockets," Dalton says of Apple founder Steve Jobs. "But what if he didn't have that Volkswagen? Or if he lived in Brookside and didn't have a garage to build in?" He sees his hacker space as a way for cash-strapped entrepreneurs to use sweat equity as they try to turn an idea into a physical object.
Boozer agrees with Dalton, and both men believe that the trend of outsourcing product development is likely to reverse itself in the near future. They aren't alone. Last month, the White House announced that the federal government would contribute $30 million toward the $70 million National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. The new public-private partnership centers on using 3-D printing for large-scale manufacturing. It's meant to be the first of 15 similar innovation centers around the country.
"For now, it's cheaper to manufacture things in China. But in a decade, formerly outsourced products and manufacturing are going to come back onshore," Boozer says.
As 3-D printing democratizes manufacturing, inventors can scale their products to demand. But for that to happen, Dalton still needs more people working the table saw.
"We're not just a bunch of tools," Dalton says. "We're the crazy things we build."