Thursday, July 19th, 2018

The Open Bench Project creates space for innovators

Francis Flisiuk

Posted on January 27, 2015 in Arts & Culture
By Francis Flisiuk

Francis Flisiuk
Francis Flisiuk
Francis Flisiuk

On Thompson’s Point in Portland is a warehouse that looks ordinary on the outside but inside is a buzzing hub of creative and productive energy. In this vast 7,000 square foot industrial space, robots are assembled and tested out, while quadcopter drones fly over head. In one corner, a group of children are being taught how to install an electric motor on an old police bike. Computers are being taken apart in the same space that boats are being built. Piles of donated lumber, scrap metal and insulation dot the space in a kind of organized chaos, while the humming of a 3D printer and the whirring of a band saw subtly compete for audial dominance.

This is the vision of architect Jake Ryan, who brought Portland its first “makerspace” and called it The Open Bench Project. However he dedicates its founding and its future to the local creative community.

“Everything here is donated or salvaged. It’s like a big found art project,” said Ryan. “I’m not building The Open Bench Project for me, I’m building it for everybody. It will to respond to what the community needs it to be.”

According to Ryan, The Open Bench Project is a shared resource facility, engineers, scientists, artists, hobbyists and entrepreneurs of any skill level, can bounce ideas off each other and work on bringing their dream project to life, without having to pay for equipment rentals or fees.

“Projects don’t come here to die; they get blown up,” said Ryan. “There’s a community of people here to help your ideas grow.”

From a fully equipped woodshop, to a planned “hacker lab,” The Open Bench Project offers the tools and the space that, according to Ryan, would be too expensive to acquire otherwise.

“It would take you seven years to pay off that table saw and we’ve got two them, plus CNC machines and shapers,” said Ryan.

Jeremy Niles, a entrepreneurship graduate of USM, interned at The Open Bench Project last year during its inception and helped launch the website, build the sign and tour the space to potential members.

Coming from a childhood filled with garage projects that included brewing beer, blowing glass, firing potato rockets and assembling model airplanes, Niles said he always wanted a space where he could simply create.

“It’s really important to have makerspaces as a middle ground between independent studios and classrooms, especially for college students” said Niles. “The most stalwart of us are getting at least a little tired of being taught things. Most of us have desires to go experience things on our own, or to teach.”

Everything about The Open Bench Project, from its $28,000 Indiegogo campaign, to its mission statement, to its logo and outdoor sign is done with innovation and collaboration in mind. Even the still ongoing building process is a team effort.

“WMTW gave us their news desk. We’re building with materials donated from Hillside Lumber. The National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, is going to come do all the lights for free, as part of a training lab for its workers,” said Ryan. “But for now, I’ve got an office built out of milk crates.”

Currently Ryan and his team of volunteers work every week to build up the space to its final form, but its doors are still open to its now 25 members, and curious creators, despite the lack of heat and amenities.

“This place is and will be an example of what people can accomplish when they get together when they work on a project,” said Ryan. “That’s what we do here, we mix and match mediums. It makes sense to carry on that story, even in the building of the space.”

Keeping up with the narrative of cooperation and collaboration, The Open Bench Project has partnered up with the USM student group Enactus, who will be overseeing their marketing strategy.

“It seemed like a natural marriage, having [Enactus] be around for our members,” said Ryan. “I was interested in connecting with business students, because if you can tap into their potential, you’ve got the gold. They’re on the cutting edge.”

According to Sarah Snowman, a senior sustainability business management major, and president of Enactus, she will have worked on five marketing projects with Ryan before the semester ends, acting as a business consultant.

A big part of Snowman’s job is to help develop a guide book for The Open Bench Project, which would lend insight on how to function and style their membership. Enactus also plans to work with The Open Bench Project, to assist in forming their companies “culture.”

“You know when you walk into a business and you get a really good sense of the brand and what it’s all about?” said Snowman. “That’s internal culture, which we’re helping to promote.”

Snowman said that Enactus will continue working with The Open Bench Project for a very long time and hopes to be their number one community partner.

“As they grow, we want to grow with them,” said Snowman. “We have a similar mission. Enactus creates that formal structure, where students have the freedom to work and empower the community.”

According to Ryan, they get more people signing up online and joining the conversation on their forum each month. There are 25 members working in the space currently and Ryan hopes to reach 250 members, a number that’s estimated to make The Open Bench Project a sustainable business.

“People are like gravity, the more you get, the more you get,” said Ryan. “There’s no reason to cut your finger off in your garage alone anymore.”

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