The Iron Range Makerspace Phenomenon

Whether or not you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard of the Makerspace Movement.

With between 1,500 and 1,800 locations worldwide, the trend is dedicated to providing collaborative facilities for engineers, scientists, hobbyists, carpenters, artists, tinkers, inventors, musicians, designers, welders, tradespeople — literally anyone interested in “making, learning, exploring, and sharing,” according to Makerspace.com.

The movement is almost synonymous with 3D printing because Makerspace facilities are one of the few places that entrepreneurs can get access to 3D printing and similar ultra high tech tools and machinery. Each Makerspace facility is an independent enterprise that gives individuals, teams, and businesses access to space and equipment like 3D printers that might not otherwise be feasible or obtainable.

Every Makerspace facility is different. As would be expected, downtown Detroit’s is auto centric. Others focus mainly on arts and crafts. Like “The Hack Factory” in Minneapolis, Iron Range Makerspace (IRM), located in Hibbing, is one of a handful of Minnesota’s Makerspaces. And like every Makerspace facility, IRM is uniquely tailored to its location — the Iron Range.

Centralizing a 3D printer and much, much more into one collaborative environment, the 12,000 square foot dream workshop is housed in what was previously the empty VFW building just off the Highway 169 Beltline. More than 60 people donated well over 2000 volunteer hours to transform the water damaged structure into a safe, spotless, state-of-the-art multipurpose workshop. IRM officially opened on National Maker Day, June 17, 2017.

IRM began as a senior entrepreneurship project for Andrew Hanegmon and four design teammates at Iron Range Engineering. After discovering a Makerspace in Pittsburgh in 2014, Hanegmon, a graduate of Hibbing High School, was inspired to bring the concept back to his hometown. A successful Kickstarter campaign combined with outside grants turned the IRM concept into a reality.

Located at 704 West 41st Street, you can’t miss the fluorescent yellow building that anchors IRM’s campus. And the facility is just as bright on the inside — both literally and figuratively.

“We’re the only shop in the United States with chandeliers,” pointed out Hanegmon, whose official title of Optimizer encompasses his many roles, from founder to project manager. “We’re very proud of that,” he chuckled. “I consider our building is the brightest place on the Range,” Hanegmon explained in a recent interview. “And not just because we’re the brightest building, but because we have the most talented, the most creative people in our region housed right here and we will continue to grow that group.”

A one-time $100 orientation fee and a $40 monthly membership fee gives IRM members full access to nearly half a million dollars in resources, including a metal working bay, automotive lift, hand tools, woodshop, textile area, recording studio, library, commercial kitchen, and more.

“We’ve [also] got a sheet metal bender, brake, and roll combo, we’ve got a 4×8 plasma cutter, a 4×8 CNC router,” Hanegmon said, listing off assets. “We’ve got an automotive lift. We’ve got a gantry crane so you can pull your engine out.”

Basically, if you need it, IRM’s got it. Quilting machines, screen printing materials, a laser engraver, a fully operative commercial kitchen — the list goes on.

And the most important part of IRM doesn’t have anything to do with the equipment — it has to do with the people. IRM is designed to encourage a culture of interaction leading to high caliber collaboration. The layout causes members to pass by other projects, opening the door to conversations and sparking further innovation.

It’s an ideal incubator for mentorships, specifically. Hanegmon shared a story about how a 13-year-old trained a retiree on how to use the laser, who in turn showed the 13-year-old a few drawing tricks.

The third part of IRM’s three-part vision is “Productive Entertainment.” That comes naturally, of course. The first two parts are a little more difficult: “Enable Entrepreneurs to Start Businesses at a Lower Cost” and “Increase Iron Range Jobs.”

Economic diversification and sustainability are IRM’s twin long-term goals for the region as a whole.

“From my perspective, I think the biggest challenge is that we’re very focused on one resource that we know won’t last forever,” said Hanegmon, referring to mining on the Iron Range. “And on top of that, it goes through very drastic cycles. You can ignore the gravity of the situation when we’re on an upswing, but not for long … We want to make those lulls in our mining cycle a little less [extreme], and maybe a lot less [extreme] down the road.”

At the same time that IRM is providing a path toward diversification and sustainability, it is also combatting cultural challenges unique to the region.

“Right now, I think we’ve got a lot of entrepreneurs, intellectual people, and industrial folk who are scattered across the Range in places where they don’t interact,” said Hanegmon. “[They] don’t network and it’s hard to connect with people. We all work with our hands; we’re all using the same tools. That’s not logical. What we can instead do is have one facility where we pay a monthly fee and then have access to tons of equipment.”

“[We need] somewhere to work out,” adds Hanegmon — and although it’s worth noting that IRM does have a weightlifting gym, Hanegmon is talking about a different kind of workout: “the means to work our brains [might] eventually lead to the Iron Range’s major industries being more than just iron.”

The Maker Movement intends to make that possible on the Iron Range by “putting the ability to really be an entrepreneur in the hands of the people in our community,” said Hanegmon.

Hanegmon believes that by building up local talent, IRM will be able to help attract more profit to the region — and maybe even foster a new generation of multi-million dollar companies.

“The Iron Range is known for being able to make anything and for having a massive work ethic,” Hanegmon emphasizes. “I think it’s time we own that and say that’s who we are, and we’re going to output that to the rest of the world.”

As of last month, IRM had 146 members. The initiative is aiming for 700+ total members in the near future and has plans to double in size. “I also envision this being farmed out across the Range, like an Anytime Fitness where you have keycard access to any location,” notes Hanegmon.

For those interested in learning more, IRM hosts “Maker Meet Up” sessions every month. Free drop-by tours are also available anytime during IRM operating hours, which are generally 10am to 11pm Wednesday through Sunday. You can also find more information at ironrangemakerspace.com.

To learn more about what IRM is doing specifically for education and local businesses, click here.

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