Sheffield is a city of makers and home to a growing maker movement. It’s synonymous with high-tech, high-quality manufacturing, so much so that Siemens, Boeing, McLaren, and hundreds of other technology and manufacturing companies have made it their base (including maker favourites Pimoroni).
The University of Sheffield is therefore the logical place for the first student-led university makerspace in the UK, in the Department of Engineering’s brand spanking new Diamond building. We spoke to Nick Boone, a PhD researcher at the university, about what makes this makerspace so special.
“Last year the iForge had a capacity of about 20; we had two lasers, a CNC machine, a couple of pillar drills, a couple of band-saws, and some hand tools. And then, over the summer, we’ve expanded to the whole other side of the room, which has increased the capacity to 45".
“The expansion is entirely due to student demand: we were turning makers away because we didn’t have space for them. We’re now running two degree modules in here – their design and making bits – that students have to come and make in the iForge. It’s all student-led on the making side of it. There have been big queues outside and we’re still hitting capacity limits, so we’re hoping to grow again maybe next summer".
“That’s expanded the making equipment we’ve got, so we’re now up to three lasers in here and more space to do things. One third of the area is our clean zone. That’s a no-goggles area. We’re soon to have more PCs and a CAD suite going on here, and then we’ve just got a water jet cutter, which is still in the process of being commissioned. “We’ve been donated bits of equipment from the university, grant money, and things that we’ve been awarded through applications".
“The main funding to start it all up was from the Reece Foundation. We got £50 000 from them last year, and that helped kick-start the space, buying equipment, and that sort of thing. They’re a charity that’s basically for increasing engineering awareness, getting more people involved in it, especially at school and university level, making it more interesting and accessible".
"We’ve also had investment from alumni through the university who’ve come in and said that they want to give money to something for the iForge – that’s where the water jet has come from. We’ve got a suite of CNC tools planned that are also coming out of the budget, because they told us that they wanted the money spending on machines: stuff that people can use, make with. They didn’t want it spent on admin or anything, but wanted something tangible".
"And then we’ve got a 3D print lab as well. 3D printing is a big deal for us because it’s the cool new technology. We do have to be a bit careful with it, because a lot of people aren’t aware of the limitations of what you should and shouldn’t 3D-print. There are a lot of people who come wanting to 3D-print boxes, for example, because they’ve heard that that’s something you can do. We gently steer them towards the laser cutter for that".
“The process we’ve got this year is: people can come in and submit prints, a rep will look at them with them, slice it with them, so the student gets to learn about slicers and settings and all those sorts of things. It all comes with practice and time. We don’t want ourselves being a print bureau, where we get files thrown at us and clients expect them back the next day; we want users involved in the process, and to understand that it’s not just a question of pressing print and having something pop out the other end".
The Sheffield makerspace led by students
“We’re totally run by students. 12 midday until 8 o’clock every weekday. It took a while to get everyone on side, particularly on the health and safety side. But our accident record has been great. We’re very conscious of training on the machines. The users get sick of having to wear goggles, but that’s essential: if you’re in there gluing something but the person next to you is on the band-saw, you’re still in danger of getting hit. People sometimes don’t understand that".
“The way we run our training is there’s a general induction on health and safety that everybody reads, but after that, training is done on a piece of kit basis, so if you need to come in and use the laser cutter, the only piece of training you need to do is the general training and the laser cutter. That’s all done online. When people sign in to the space, the system checks their training; it will only light certain boxes up, so if they, say, want to come in and use the router, the person behind the desk will be able to see if they’ve got the training to be able to do so".
“We’re planning on implementing that system on the machines in future, so you’ll have to scan or swipe a card attached to the machine, and it will power up the machine if you’re safe to use it. We didn’t find it too bad last year with a capacity of 20, but now we’ve got a bigger space and more people in here, it’s a bit harder to remember what people have got (though most people are pretty honest)".
“Over the past week, we’ve been at capacity from opening to closing, so there have been 45 people in here from 12 pm to 8 pm, with one in, one out. We’re almost at 2500 registered users, which is absolutely great as far as we’re concerned. People are using the space, people are coming in here wanting to do things".
“We’ve got our own materials stores. Every user gets £10 free credit to spend on materials with us; the idea is to limit the barriers to making as much as possible. All 3D printing is free anyway, but if you’re buying acrylic, sheet metal, plywood from us, we help you get going and then buy from us at small sizes. If someone comes in with an idea for something they want to make, we want the barriers to be as low as possible".
"We’re still trying to get the makerspace spirit across; even though we’re a university, we don’t want to be the university workshop. People might be coming in here to do university projects, but that’s not just what we’re for; the person who’s here for a module has just as much right to be here as the person who’s making a Christmas decoration for their mum".
For more information, visit the Iforge website here
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