Makerspace in Philadelphia

A few days ago I was watching Rough Science, a TV series about several scientists "stranded" in a remote location, and given various tasks to perform using the natural resources around them plus a chest of junk. The tasks involve performing measurements, creating chemicals, and building devices. And oddly enough, this was the push I needed to continue my work on the Babbage-Boole Rodulator. Just seeing people work on things was inspiring.

Given that I'm having a crisis of confidence in my X2 mill converted to CNC, I figured, why not find a makerspace that already has at least a guaranteed working CNC mill, and makers making things so that I can exhort myself to making things too? A quick online search, and local to me, in Philadelphia, I found NextFab Studio, located at 37th and Market.

NextFabbers: please keep me honest. If I misreport something, let me know and I'll edit.


NextFab opened its doors in January 2010, after locating space provided by the University City Science Center (a technology incubator) in the new (completed 2008) building at 3711 Market Street, and obtaining financial backing by angel investors. After they secured the location, huge crates of new equipment started to arrive, and the NextFabbers were driven (to exhaustion) to install and set it all up.

And I have to say that they did a fantastic job of utilizing the space. Let's go on a tour.

This is the entrance to NextFab and the front desk, with 2'x2'x2' lockers in the background:

Makers can pay for access to NextFab equipment, lockers, and training courses, or they can purchase monthly or yearly memberships to get reduced prices. Currently NextFab has about 40 members. NextFab also offers consulting and contracting services where anyone can pay for design and prototyping expertise.

Here is a variety of things that were made on NextFab equipment. The materials range from MDF, to aluminum, steel, acrylic, wood, fabric, and so on.

There is a computer room with six computers, 4 PCs and 2 Macs. This is Lewis, one of the NextFabbers. Everybody say Hi, Lewis!

Users can access software such as Adobe Suite, Solidworks, Maya, Rhino, and VisualMILL.

This is the electronics room:

There are soldering irons, desoldering stations, oscilloscopes, DMMs, power supplies, generators, etc. The picture only shows one bench, but there is a similar bench on the other side of the room.

Members get access cards which give them access to the various rooms, and you will not be able to enter a room until you have completed the prerequisites for that room. In addition, you cannot use the equipment until you have taken the course and have been checked out on the equipment. Kind of like leveling up. The prerequisite for most machines are the Orientation and Workshop Safety Training (included with membership), and Machine Shop Safety Training (also included). These are only one-hour classes, so they are not at all stultifying.

NextFab is not only a makerspace, but a shared space. Members are encouraged to share, and here we see the "take a part, leave a part" bins.

NextFab also has a materials exchange. I'm not sure how it works, but presumably you can bring in materials for NextFab, and they will let you use a certain amount of materials they already have.

This and the take/leave was the perfect opportunity for me to dig through my closets and find all the things and stuff that I had collected and no longer needed, but didn't want to give to charity or throw away.

The Roland CNC mill is in the tool room:

It is a four-axis machine, and has a little under 20" x 16" of travel, and 6" in the Z-axis. Due to the spindle speed, this mill cannot handle ferrous material, which includes the mild steel I was planning to build the Rodulator out of. Oh well, that's what aluminum is for.

Next to the mill is a Stratasys Dimension 3D printer, which prints using ABS plastic, the same plastic that LEGO is made of.

This 3D printer has the interesting feature that it can print support material also, so if your part arches up into the air, it is still printable. Here is a propellor blade made on the printer, which rests on the support material:

The material can be dissolved with a solvent, leaving the ABS piece intact. One of the NextFabbers, Dan, was telling me that you could print a transmission with gears, dunk the whole thing in the solvent, and then the transmission is ready to work.

There is another 3D printer in this room, a Z-Corp Spectrum.

This is an inkjet printer which uses gypsum to construct your part. It is also full color! For example:

Being gypsum, the parts are fragile, but can be infused with a glue to make them very solid.

Also in the tool room are... tools. Things that screw, bang, twist, twirl, and so on, with and without power. This includes a small desktop drill press.

In the next room, which is the machine room, this huge mangler greets you:

It is a lathe. I admit to being totally ignorant about lathes, knowing only that they can be used to construct any other machine in a machine shop, including itself. Warrant Officer Leonard A. T. Beckett built a lathe when he was a POW during World War II at the Batu Lintang Japanese internment camp. Using the lathe, he was able to build a radio and a generator. I have to learn how to use this thing.

There are other woodworking tools here: a bandsaw and belt sander, complete with dust collection vacuums.

Here is also a compound saw, and a huge table saw:

The table saw has Saw Stop, which theoretically means you can stick your hand in the rotating blade and it will sense the capacitance difference and stop the blade instantly, giving you just a nick instead of a missing finger. Saw Stop is typically demonstrated with a hot dog, but I'm sure that someone had to eventually test it with a real live finger. I would like to shake that person's (hopefully five-fingered) hand.

Not shown is the drill press, metal former, metal cutter, and manual mill, and probably a few others I forgot about.

All these machines can bend, spindle, mutilate, rip, cut, and kill you, and make you cry. NextFab has a very clear set of safety rules, which are not at all onerous. They make sense. Do not ignore them.

You must always wear protective goggles (included in membership) and long pants (not included in membership) in every room other than the computer room, main room, and embroidery room.

In an area in the machine shop is the welding room:

These are Tiggy and Miggy, the comedy welding pair. OK, I made that up, but what else do you call a TIG and a MIG welder? Welding safety equipment is provided.

There is also a big, scary plasma cutter:

Sitting on the plasma cutter was what appeared to be a 1-1/2" thick steel plate into which a huge hole had been cut out. The plasma cutter isn't really for such thick materials, but the fact that it could be done at all was impressive and a bit emasculating. Um. Forget I said that. Moving on!

Also in the machine room is a laser cutter. It cuts and engraves wood, acrylic, felt, cork, marble and granite. Just don't put anything containing chlorine in it (which includes PVC and vinyl), because the resulting chlorine gas will wreck the machine.

As shown above, do not lean. That makes laser cutter ANGRY! It has a 75 W CO2 laser at the business end, and is vented by a blower. Here is the inside, which I call "the grill":

This thing is very precise. Here is a sample bit of plastic that was part of an architectural model. The piece is 1/2" by 1-1/2". Wowzers.

The final piece of equipment in the machine shop is the ShopBot CNC router:

Wood and foam typically go into this thing.

With all the machines that are in the machine room, you'd think the room was huge, but it isn't. The space is well-utilized, though. Since not everyone is going to use all the machines all at once, many of the machines can be moved around a bit.

Back in the main room, we have two large plotters:

These sit next to another row of computers, these for general use: two PCs and a Mac.

Not shown is the library and the huge central table where you can eat, read, doodle, or hold meetings (or eat, read, and doodle during a meeting).

This alcove contains a computer-controlled embroidery machine, and a serger, which presumably serges. These are yet more machines that I need to learn to use. There is also a comfy sofa.

We also have a 3D scanner:

This takes your small object and measures it using a laser, but also takes photographs so that you can immediately turn it into a renderable 3D object in your 3D programs, or you can turn around and cut it on a ShopBot or one of the 3D printers.

There is another room, the wet room, in which all the chemical things lie in wait. I am assured it contains a fume hood, a spray booth, and oven, a vacuum pump, and an ultrasonic cleaner. Presumably this room is where one would pour molds and mix up foam.

That's pretty much it. Just by being there, I am inspired to make things, and this is where I will be constructing the Rodulator.

If you are ever in Philadelphia, be sure to drop by for a look (except Mondays and Tuesdays when they are closed).

See you at NextFab!