On the day I visited the Gold Coast Techspace at Robina Community Centre, David Tangye was making toast for lunch. While toast for lunch is not entirely unusual, the toaster David was using that day was. David, secretary and committee member of GC Techspace, ‘hacked’ the toaster. He pulled the cover off the toaster and laid bare what looks like dangerously exposed electrical wires, all in the name of making the lever work better.
The word ‘hack’ has garnered a bad rap lately. Most of us would think of socially challenged males, living at home with their mothers, sitting in dark rooms all day in front of computers, creating havoc with computer viruses. In fact, the word ‘hack’ just means to pull something apart in order to repurpose it. That’s what the ‘hackerspace’ at the Gold Coast Techspace is all about.
Hackerspaces exist in cities all over the world. They are places where tech-heads, hackers, geeks, and anyone interested in technology can come together in a collaborative workspace to incubate ideas and work on their projects with like-minded people.
Most hackerspaces, or makerspaces, around the world have 3D printers in them. GC Techspace has a Rep Rap, a small 3D printer that produces objects designed using CAD (computer aided design) software. The Rep Rap can even print a copy of itself. GC Techspace uses a biodegradable cornstarch thread to feed into the Rep Rap to print objects, although it is also capable of printing metals and ABS plastics.
One member had just printed a simple rain gauge that week as part of a special interest group. There are GCDuinos, variants of Arduino electronics prototyping boards, which are affectionately known as ‘JuicyDuinos’. Techspace uses the Linux operating system as opposed to Microsoft or Mac, and it has a mini computer known as a Rasberry Pi.
Techspace uses all this equipment, software and operating system because they are Open Source. That means they cannot be patented. Under the Open Source system everything is free to be copied, and are protected under the ‘copyleft’ agreement of the GNU General Public License.
“Patents made everything too expensive,” said David after hosting another workshop.
“3D printer patents were around for 25 years and there was no progress on their use in that time. It’s only since they have become Open Source that the technology is advancing,” he said.
According to the Harvard Business Review published March 2013, 3D printing will eventually reduce our dependence on manufacturing in China. It claims goods will be more easily produced much closer to the point of consumption, namely in every metropolitan area in the world, not just where there is cheap labour. Any higher costs that Western countries such as the US and Australia may incur will be offset by the elimination of shipping costs and purchase of large amounts of inventory required by Chinese factories. Goods will also be customised much more easily using CAD.
David Tangye disagrees: “3D printing is only useful for prototyping and developing. It’s still in its infancy.”
The major problem, he says, is that manufacturing and value adding can’t be done in Australia until we improve our education system. Programming is not well taught in our schools and kids don’t take up the subject when it’s offered.
“3D printing is too complex for the average person,” he said.
However, David says parents do want relevant technology and programming to be taught in schools. He plans to develop a technology curriculum and a design course in the near future. In the meantime, Techspace takes the Rep Rap to schools as part of their education outreach arm.
The Gold Coast Techspace has four arms of operation: the hackspace, education, a pre-incubator, and a tech-focused co-worker space. Its pre-incubator is more like an incubator of ideas, because it doesn’t have the resources or space to help SIGs graduate to full business ideas.
While they have councillors such as Glen Tozer and Jan Grew supporting them, the funding is just not there. They are now looking at getting funding from firms in Silicon Valley, California.
As I walked out of Robina Community Centre towards my car in the carpark, there were people spilling out of the library building as the fire alarm bleated loudly. I couldn’t help but wonder if the ‘hacked’ toaster next door had short-circuited something. It seems a few inconveniences have to be tolerated when you have an inventors shed next door.