Last week I was in Houston launching the newest branch of BlueStamp Engineering (BSE) and in addition to checking out Houston's famous running club and heading down to Galveston, I HAD to see what the makers in Houston are up to.
As early as Tuesday my BSE students had been tackling their projects faster than anticipated, so I had to head out for extra parts. A staff member suggested I check out Electronic Parts Outlet,or EPO for short. I must say, it was impressive. Even with the decline of surplus stores nation-wide, they were well-stocked AND well organized! Their parts bins were setup so a casual stroll down the aisle would allow you to see the bulk of what was offered. While it is true that there are great online stores to buy parts in small quantities, there is something about getting a power resistor the same way you would buy a stick of gum.
In addition to having parts, they had used equipment for reasonable prices (although the selection left something to be desired – lots of single supplies but no triple output power supply). And for someone just looking to throw a project together, they had loads of different kits. After all, the idea of being able to pop down to EPO for a quick kit when a child shows interest makes Houston seem much more pleasant than the climate would suggest.
Happy with my EPO outing, I couldn't refuse the suggestion of checking out the local hackerspace, TXRX. They have an open house every Friday for members, friends, and strangers from other cities to come by and check it out. I was floored. Even though they have only been running for ~3 years, the space was excellent, the members were active, and I saw no fewer than 3 projects being worked on. One was an electric skateboard being tested that very night (see the video below)! They also had a bunch of visitors which was likely related to the fact that they had food for all (donation-based buffet style).
The space was well done, despite not having as much square footage as they would want. There were several community benches that were clean and organized, which is no small feat! They had a generous membership base, which provided the slew of equipment for general use. The bench lighting consisted of florescent tubes that were suspended by counterweights, so the user could lower it to a few inches off of the table for precision work, or high above the table for large projects. When not wrist-deep in a project, a member could hang out on the couch, cook some food outside on the grill or in the full kitchen (!!!), or dream up their next project at the conference table. And as a personal favorite feature there was a sweet bike shop in a second room, again putting a new face on Houston from what an afternoon jog might otherwise draw me to conclude.
To top off the evening, on my way out I had a chance to see a very unique piece of Houston: Lucha Mobile. This impressive van was not just an intricate mobile art project – but included a pop-up wrestling ring on the roof. Never to be disappointed by art merged with functionality, I took an instant shine to the folks working on the masterpiece. Action figures on the hood, custom lighting, and hand-painted everything resulted in what I'm sure is the life of any tailgate. Especially once the cooler comes out.
All a person needs to get into making is a source of parts (preferably in a storefront), and a solid community to guide them on their path. Houston has done both of those things wonderfully, and after living in Denver, Cleveland, and Chicago, I'm impressed.