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Pittsburgh's oldest makerspace HackPGH is more than doubling in size

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, March 1, 2018, 9:18 a.m.

It is obvious HackPGH needs to expand.

Chad Elish, president of the oldest makerspace in Pittsburgh, had to step over completed projects, supplies and tools as he made his way around the space.

A trio of small electric go-carts were parked on top of one another. The wood shop was a maze of power tools. Four 3D printers sat on one shelf.

It's a playground of tools and machines, components and parts.

“It's chaos,” Elish said this week, standing in the middle of the shop. “Organized chaos.”

HackPGH is more than doubling in size, expanding from its 1,500 cramped, chaotic square feet to 3,600 square feet. It is taking over the entire ground floor of the building it shares with other companies in Uptown.

HackPGH got the keys to its new space Thursday and will start moving in this weekend.

HackPGH will build a classroom, new bathrooms and a lounge for members. The classroom and extra space will mean that HackPGH can hold meetups, workshops and classes and still allow members to work on projects, Elish said.

There will be a “clean space” for 3D printers, sewing machine, vinyl cutters and other equipment. The metal shop and wood shop will stay in the old section of the building and grow, Elish said.

The new bathrooms and a new entrance will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Elish said.

And there will be a new, expanded kitchenette for members. Its current kitchenette — a microwave, refrigerator and vending machine that sells snacks and Arduino circuit boards — is wedged into a tiny space at the entrance. The vending machine, which was hacked by members, was broken when HackPGH found it. Members fixed it and programed it to run off an Arduino board.

Hacking, Elish explained, isn't more than wreaking havoc on the internet.

“Hack is just taking something apart and learning how it works and repurposing it,” said Elish, who is hacked himself — he has two RFID chips implanted in his hands, with one acting as his keys and the other a tiny magnet.

HackPGH opened nine years ago. Makerspace wasn't a word then. The maker movement had just started.

The organization has grown to include more than 100 members but it still doesn't have a single paid staff member. The entire organization is run by volunteers.

“We started with an empty space and kind of hacked it out,” Elish said.

That empty space is filled. It looks like a tinkerer's garage or a mad scientist's secret laboratory. Elish said it feels like the garages of Silicon Valley where companies like Hewlett-Packard and Apple started.

“You have all these tools and you can pretty much make anything,” Elish said. “You get your creative juices flowing, and you can really make a difference, and you can make a difference for yourself.”

Members get access to classes and can use any of the machines in the space. There are six 3D printers, a laser cutter, welding stations, woodworking tools and CNC routers. Projects range from jewelry to electric go-carts raced in the nationwide Power Racing Series. Members build the mini cars on a $500 budget. The cars go about 25 mph with an adult on board.

One uses a battery from a Nissan Leaf. Another is powered by a motor salvaged from a drone. A mini “Back to the Future” Delorean runs off a motor from a floor burnisher. The Lamborghini-looking car is self-driving, Elish said.

“It's fun to engineer it on a shoestring budget,” Elish said.

But HackPGH isn't just about fun. Members run businesses out of the space. Elish said one member started her own jewelry business to make extra money. Members learn welding, machining, 3D printing and laser cutting. Working on the self-driving go-carts could land someone a job at one of Pittsburgh's self-driving car companies.

“With a GED, you can put this on your résumé that you've worked at this space and you've learned these tools, and you can have a job that you never thought you'd get before.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

Chad Elish, president of HackPGH, stands in the 'organized chaos' of HackPGH's space in Uptown on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. HackPGH is expanding and more than doubling in size.
Chad Elish, president of HackPGH, stands in the 'organized chaos' of HackPGH's space in Uptown on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. HackPGH is expanding and more than doubling in size.
Chad Elish, president of HackPGH, stands next to one of the organization's 3D printers on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. HackPGH is expanding its space in Uptown and more than doubling in size.
Chad Elish, president of HackPGH, stands next to one of the organization's 3D printers on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. HackPGH is expanding its space in Uptown and more than doubling in size.
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