Notes of the talk we gave at Build Stuff'15 conference in Vilnius.

Building Stuff at Technarium: a hackerspace in Vilnius.

In this conference, I could probably pass as a data scientist. But I'm not wearing that hat today. I'm here to tell about a hackerspace we are operating.

We make things: from code to ceramics, from electronics to chemistry, from metalwork to 3D printing.

This conference is for people who build the infrastructure of the world. We've built a bridge as well.

Probably the first incarnation of Technarium was at a small room at the basement of an underground club. It is a nice, warm and cosy place. I wrote my MSc thesis there. However, it could not contain more than 5 humans at a time.

So we moved out to a large hangar in the former drill factory. These were interesting times: we were able to bring a bus inside for repairs. A barbecue party. A large metalwork project. Use a fire cannon.

Unfortunately, the city development caught up with us. Last I heard, there'll be a jail in that territory.

Nowadays we operate a 700 sq. m. space at a former factory in Naujamiestis, close to the center of Vilnius. That's part of the premises. Before people and their stuff moved in, obviously.

In the space, we've got a metal workshop with welding equipment and other tools.

We've got a wood workshop that is being expanded at the moment.

As any vanilla hackerspace does, we have an electronics/computers/3D printing room too.

Also: a ceramics studio, biochemistry lab, photography room, UAV/CNC design corner, sewing area, brewery...

Why is that? Partly because we're a bunch of diverse people interested in diverse stuff. But I have an inkling that this diversity has something to do with the fact that we're a post-Soviet country. And in the Soviet times making/fixing/hacking stuff has been a fixture of the society.

You wouldn't be able to drive your car anywhere if you didn't know how to fix it and did not attend to it on monthly basis. You would have much to wear if you didn't have the skills needed to sew or mend clothes.

All consumer items came with complete blueprints and schematics. Not because the government wanted to encourage DIY, but because the quality of mass-produced items was so low that the end users were expected to provide the lifetime warranty.

Here are a few examples of this involuntary technical creativity. This is a kitchen knife, made by the father of one of us. It is a bloody good knife -- it still cuts after 30 years.

The most convenient, easy-to-use and maintain potato grinder we've ever seen. Made by a single guy after work, not a hardware startup.

So, once there was a modern society which had the virtues of DIY and hacking woven deep into its fabric. And some of that trickled down to the next generation.

We have that in Vilnius: smart, educated, curious people who are not afraid to do things themselves. However, what we sorely lack here are the communities of technical people. There is a lot of tinkerers, but they work at their own garages. They don't meet, don't exchange knowledge, are isolated from the wider world and that leads to stagnation.

Another corollary of that involuntary DIY movement was that people became complacent. They were content with crappy, temporary, the cheapest solutions which just worked. They were happy to live on duct tape for 50 years.

We try to change that. Obviously, so do many people here: No Trolls Allowed hackercamp, Green Garage, Vilnius Girls Code, even this conference.

How do we do that? We try to educate, engage and empower the public.

We organise lots of workshops, Cryptoparties, carpentry and metalwork training.

Actually, in two weeks we've got a workshop called 'Arduino 101 for programmers' -- for us who already know how to code but don't know what a pinout is or how to connect things together.

We also share what we do. And that's not only code, we also publish schematics and BOMs of electronics. Even the blueprints of a house we've built are public.

Also, we talk to people. We answer engineering questions artists/designers have.

Actually, I observe an interesting reversal. There are a lot of people who know how to use computers well. They are able to make a CAD drawing, a beautiful 3D render. However, making an actual thing is pure magic to them. The step from a drawing on a screen to a tangible object either seems to be impossible, or too trivial. What we do is offer solutions for that: we try to show that there's no magic, just you and a hammer of your preferred size.

Brickwall startup decelerator. That's a public service we perform quite often, as there is a wave of hardware startups lured by the promise of the Internet of Things or accessible microcontrollers.

Making a hardware product is indeed hard and very different from software: there's no undo, no recompile, testing/manufacturing dynamics are all not the same. We ask them some hard questions, give advice, ask them to think again, read the datasheets, browse and look at the existing solutions.

The main problem is that these startups are often founded by people with background in programming.

It is a problem mainly because they – we – spend most of our working life in the world of abstractions. We build crystal castles in the air and sometimes lose touch with the physicality of the medium other than pure thought.

That's a ceramic plate with the OpenSSL source code which led to the Heartbleed vulnerability.

This is nowhere more acute than in 3D printing. People imagine it is a magic machine, a teleporter, and print stuff better left unprinted or made in other ways.

Things don't materialize out of thin air, the printer is a plastic deposition machine, the plastic is a piece of matter with its own properties that cannot be neglected. Layers, filling, plastic type, printing speed, temperature – it all matters. Even commercial service providers don't consider 3D printing to be material engineering.

This is why we embrace the analogue crafts and technologies -- ceramics, jewellery, metal casting, sewing -- at Technarium: they are, of course, influenced and improved by the new, digital, technologies. But they also let one stay in touch with the matter they work with.

Let's talk about electronics.

Some of us think that the open hardware movement is mainly recreational -- hobyists catering to other hobyists. However, we have the same problem the Soviet people had: good things are hard to come by or too expensive.

We ought to build stuff that is the hardware equivalent of Linux or Apache: otherwise we are doomed to an endless hell of planned obsolescence.

An open source water kettle? Open source switched-mode power supply? Variable frequency drive? This one is an open-source solid-state relay that controls mains voltage.

We made a number of temperature controllers: they are used in ceramics kilns, for example. A guy in the Netherlands is using them to develop a pyrolysis crematorium.

One never knows where an open-source object end up. A soil moisture sensor we made is used in industrial-scale medical cannabis farming in California. I think this is a beautiful development.

We made DIY LED lighting at the hackerspace, using drywall fixture/LED strips/lots of soldering. Bright enough, controllable with an Arduino.

Let me wrap up with a few projects made at Technarium which are not as serious or important as the previous examples. However, they're either educational or simply fun.

This is a water wheel, or rather a micro-power plant we've built over a tiny rivulet in the countryside. It yields just enough energy to power two LED lanterns. When we've counted how much did it cost us and how long we expect it to operate, the electricity it produces is more expensive than any other kind, including nuclear.

This is a coffee roaster made out of old washing machine.

JPEG compression recursively ran on the Lena image 1000 times -- a shell script we wrote while chilling one night.

A 3D printer drawing algorithmically generated art with a pencil duct-taped to it. There's a line in the code which accounts for the fact that the graphite wears off -- it lowers the extruder head a little bit.

Thank you all!

The html layout based on this amazing talk transcript by M. Cieglowski.