By Hiroko Sato
LITTLETON — A 14-wheel tank drive robot and a 50-foot radio mast are Faisal Mohammed’s tools for exploring the world from unexpected angles.
Let the robot roll into a crawl space and extend the mast toward the skies, Mohammed said. The camera lens mounted atop each of the gadgets might capture a view that makes people hold their breaths.
The problem is, Mohammed said, building such gizmos to help satisfy his interest in photography requires a lot more physical space than his Ayer townhouse basement affords him. So, the 36-year-old system engineer leased a 650-square-foot space in a Littleton mill and began scouting like-minded folks to share the shop with.
From woodcrafters to a quilter, the communal studio now hosts an eclectic mix of “makers.” The synergy among them fuels the creativity of their work just as seen in many other groups that call similar shared shops home around the state, Mohammed said.
“This is a national trend — actually, it is really a global trend,” Mohammed said about makers of all sorts thriving in symbiotic work environments that they built for themselves.
Littleton Common Makers opened its doors recently at 410 Great Rd., welcoming a handful creative minds needing a designated workspace outside of their homes.
Complete with four work benches, the shop provides the space for the members to spread materials for their projects. A quilter has brought in her sewing machine and some of her work hangs on the walls. A woodworker has set up a laser cutter. Aside from a storage rack-full of spare parts, tools and equipment that the members put there to exchange, the members share their knowledge and skills in their fields, which is the most valuable aspect of sharing the shop, said Mohammed, a father of two who works as quality assurance engineer for Jackpine Technologies in Maynard.
A number of shared makers places have been popping up across the region, with many of them clustered in the Greater Boston areas and along the Route 91 corridor in Springfield and north. Nearby places include Lowell Makes, a shared community workshop and laboratory in Lowell.
“Makerspaces and maker groups are new and rapidly evolving hotbeds of innovation, which have been facilitated by the latest in prototyping technology while rooted in traditional pillars of manufacturing: engineering, design, science, and art,” according to “Innovation in Manufacturing — Makerspaces,” a 2013 report prepared by Andrea Foertsch of Melrose Real Estate Strategies for MassDevelopment, a quasi-state economic development agency.
Anne Gatling Haynes, director of transformative development for MassDevelopment, said a grant program for collaborative workspaces in the gateway cities last year supported 12 organizations, of which three were makerspaces, including Lowell Makes and New Vestures, both of Lowell. Her office has also recently conducted a statewide survey on shared workspace and 13 percent of the 101 respondents identified themselves as “makerspaces.”
Products being made in these places range from 3D printers to jewelry. Some look to create prototypes for their products to commercialize while others just want a space for their hobbies, Mohammed said. But, these “makers” typically share a common thread in that they are a curious bunch wanting to find out how things work, Mohammed said. With how-to information for all kinds of products readily available on the Internet these days, many people try to make things themselves for lower costs or improve the functionality of existing products. When they succeed at their attempts, some of them decide to sell their creations.
Artisan’s Asylum, a 400,000-square-foot shared makers place in Somerville, has attracted those people. Greentown Labs, home to 40 cleantech hardware start ups across the street from Artisan’s Asylum, spun out of the asylum, Mohammed said.
“They build a community and economy around them,” Mohammed said of shared work spaces.
And if commercialization isn’t one’s interest, the shared space at least helps realize his or her dream.
Mohammed, who imagines taking National Geographic-worthy photos one of these days, said something about photography has always fascinated him.
“It’s the memory,” Mohammed said. “It’s a moment in time. But, that’s now there forever. Our memories fade, but at least photographs are still there.”
Mohammed’s idea to create a local shared studio had dozens of prospective members contacting him initially, but four core people stuck around for the opening, including Steve Branam, a software engineer from Ayer who teaches woodworking.
Branam’s home basement can only hold a handful students at a time and needed a larger, permanent home for both regular classes and free ones that he provides to veterans so that it can grow as a resource for the community.
“So far, I’ve been very happy with the makerspace,” Branam said in his email to Nashoba Valley Voice. “Once everything is fully organized, I’ll be able to leave my student tools there so I don’t have to carry things back and forth. That’s been my main objection teaching out of other public locations, I had to drag everything in and out for each class.”
Mohammed said holding workshops on different subject matters in which the public can participate is among the goals for Littleton Common Makers.
The Littleton Common Makers members come from Nashoba Valley, including Shirley and Townsend, but the reasonable rent at the Littleton mill helped Mohammed decide to set up the shop there.
Littleton Common Makers offers full-membership for $75 per month, which comes with around-the-clock access to the space. Partial membership is $50, and full-members can bring in family members for that price. There is a discount for military and emergency personnel and also works with those who may be not able to afford the membership.
It holds an open house on Thursdays from 6-8 p.m.