Monday, August 15, 2016

On Excellence, Proof, and the Long, Hard Road, Part 1

Stationnnn! "Excellent!"

Pumping Station: One is a powerful idea in self-education, a location full of tools owned by the membership and a robust membership full of people who know things and like to share what they know. It is a shockingly inexpensive concept that is driven by the idea that you bring the materials and the desire to create, to learn, and they probably have what you need to learn, someone to show you, and people who would like to help.

The opportunities for personal development are considerable at Pumping Station: One. They have an extensive wood shop, including a large CNC-controlled Shopbot (which is magical to behold), MIG and TIG welders, a forge, precision metal-cutting and metal-shaping tools including a Bridgeport mill (and a second, CNC-controlled Bridgeport on the way), a cutting and etching laser, precision small-scale metalworking tools, an extensive kitchen that includes brewing equipment, CNC-controlled 3D printers, a well-supplied electronics/robotics/computer lab, an extensive arts and crafts lab including a 1/2-horsepower industrial sewing machine, a meeting area/lounge with a great deal of entertainment equipment (musical instruments, projection television, video game systems, board games, a bar, etc.), and much, much more. This list suffers from my own lack of familiarity with much of what Pumping Station: One has to offer; I am authorized to fuse metal, but am yet to become authorized to use fire, for example.

In fact, the Station has recently expanded, taking over the remaining space in the building and giving them the opportunity to revisit some equipment interests that have come up, such as the possibility of adding a CNC-controlled plasmacutter and expanding the forge area to include metal-casting equipment! It's a sign of how well they're doing, that they can make and act on such plans, which just means they have even more they can offer members seeking to expand their skill sets! It is interesting to note that the concerns involved in this expansion mostly revolve around just how much more new equipment they can obtain for the space; they're like kids in a candy store, except the candy can remove your arm but the kids are very well aware of that, and exercise caution.

Permissions

They have a proper safety-oriented authorization process in place, out of concern for both the safety of the members and the proper treatment of the equipment. Authorizations are a combination of set-up, use, maintenance, and shut-down procedures combined with entry-level training, that prepares the member to properly begin using the equipment for their own projects. As a general overview: anything more complex than a soldering iron probably requires documented authorization. For some equipment, this authorization can be performed by anyone that is already authorized and comfortable doing so, and so some authorizations can be obtained piecemeal as people are available. Other equipment, however, has more involved technical concerns in operation and involves more problematic maintenance efforts if something goes wrong, and so authorization can only be done by qualified members in specific classes. Once a member is authorized, their name is added to a list of authorized users and they can proceed with their own projects as the equipment is available.

It is worth noting that education does not have to end with the authorization process! Chances are, a member will want to do more and so have questions and concerns, but other members are usually available to contact... in person, or via the mailing list, or by other means... to provide further relevant training and information. Pumping Station: One is, after all, a not-for-profit educational facility, and plenty of its members are ready to help you learn more as you achieve new ideas and better realize just what it is you want to learn!

Maintenance and Experimentation

Most of the equipment is maintained and repaired in-house, meaning it falls to volunteers among the membership to maintain their own equipment; they ask members to use equipment safely and simply notify the mailing list if something breaks that the member cannot repair themselves. Each area has a budget, and accidents happen; Pumping Station: One doesn't worry about having to replace a saw blade, they just want members to be safe if something happens. Fortunately, with such a large membership, someone is usually available to do repairs, and this also opens up interesting additional opportunities for members that are willing to take ownership of their choices: some of the equipment at Pumping Station: One can be “hacked”, or modified experimentally with care. They have a labeling system for their equipment that lets people use a QR Reader to look the device on the Station's wiki for further details (such as authorized users, authorizers and procedures), and these same labels also include information on device ownership (some of it is on loan) and whether permission is granted to hack the device. However, some equipment at the station is so complex that the membership able to properly support it is limited (or non-existent, which means outside help must be hired), and, for obvious reasons, these devices are usually “do not hack”.

Groups

Because of the sheer volume of opportunity available at Pumping Station: One, it follows that groups would form around specific interests, which welcome new hobbyists and provide mutual support for each other. Visitors are also encouraged! There are a number of these, such as:

NERP (Not Exclusively Raspberry Pi): A group formed around designing embedded computer control (CNC) systems using open-source technology. They use low-cost computer components like Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone and Arduino to create a variety of projects, such as CNC control for 3D printers, little robots, household device controls and more.

CAJOO (Cable Access Jammers Open Office): A loose musical workshop, where practiced musicians help hobbyists and the casually-curious become comfortable with making music. Jam sessions will happen.

Bicycle Clinic: A bicycle building, repair and maintenance workshop that's open to the public.

SIGBOT: A group that focuses on robotics technology and building robots.

SMOO (Small Metals Open Office): A group for small-scale metalworking, such as jewelry smithing, glass fusions and fine etching work.

Fusion 360 Meetup: As an educational not-for-profit organization, Pumping Station: One makes Autodesk Fusion 360 easily available: in fact, Autodesk provides members a free three-year license! So this group focuses on helping members learn CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and troubleshoot CAD projects using Fusion 360!

Python Open Office (yes, yes... no): A group for practiced and aspiring programmers alike. Python is popular, but the group doesn't limit itself to any one language!

TOOOL.us (The Open Organization Of Lockpickers): A group to educate the public about the internal workings of locks and locking mechanisms, so people can make wiser choices when selecting security equipment. Yes, the name is also their website.

Beer Church: A brewing interest group! There is a brewing supply store about a block away, which provides a certain spontaneity for this group's operations.

Analog Game Night: A group that plays games... but without televisions or computers! They use radical new technologies like “dice”, “cards”, “game boards” and “game pieces” to bring the novelty of playing games fully into three dimensions by playing them in the real world! This group often plays newer, more unusual or less-known games, so you're less likely to play Monopoly and more likely to play Settlers of Catan, or Give Me The Brain!

Pumping Station: One also likes to celebrate. Pretty much anything. A number of members are also food enthusiasts, so events happen and, because events happen, food also tends to happen. Rather often.

Drawbacks


Pumping Station: One does suffer its drawbacks: being entirely member-driven, there is little central structure that has to be recognized when it comes to following up on abuse, except for the board and its subcommittees, that are all empowered by the membership; members can come in and leave piles of dishes in the sink, snowdrifts of sawdust around the bandsaw, or piles of scrap wood in the loading dock, and there's really not much that can be done except for other members to volunteer to clean up their messes and ask them to not do it again. They're also dealing with an evolving sexual harassment policy driven by the desire of women to learn these same things... to weld, to work wood, to build robotics, to learn and develop skills... and the unfortunate presence of a few people who think those women belong to or must respond to them, even in this environment. With a membership as large as theirs, it is an unfortunate truth that these issues are going to arise more and more often as they continue to grow... but they are making a concerted effort to address such problems. It boils down to the membership empowering the board to make and enforce these decisions, and action by members to establish and enforce appropriate behavior.

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