Best Practices for Operating a Makerspace

Posted by Amy Bennett on


We have the privilege of visiting hundreds of maker labs each year in schools and colleges, libraries, communities, and corporate run spaces.  We have talked to students and lab managers of 1,000 to 50,000 square foot spaces in all stages of makerspace operations from planning to labs that host thousands of makers each year.

Here are some best practices we wanted to share:

Orientation and Training - While safety training is critical, we consistently hear that getting certified on each machine rapidly lowers the learning curve. Many labs do this by having a project that demonstrates the maker’s ability to produce a specific outcome. Online tutorials of basic concepts can be extremely helpful, and a sticker can be placed on an ID for those who passed. Some labs use RFID access to limit entry at the room or tool level.  Visual cues are especially impactful.  Color coding equipment by level of training can also be effective. Classes (such as “laser a keyring”) can be a great way to show the machine while giving makers a take home gift. 


makerspace layout


Space Planning - Since space is the most valuable resource on a campus and in community makerspace, having a clear plan can help, especially since interest in makerspaces is increasing at such a rapid pace, you may outgrow your space quickly.  Putting machines along the perimeter, grouped by type will keep the flow of the space intuitive, while keeping the dust contained to an area.  Make sure you have enough space for safety zones around each machine.  Modular work spaces, such as movable tables or machines on wheels will increase the flexibility of your space. Gathering data on which equipment gets the most use will also help you optimize your space. 

3d printing space

Materials - When makers bring their own materials, they may not know what to look for in terms of usability and safety on the machines. Labs have minimized this risk by putting accepted sources and/or specifications on their websites and in the labs, and by listing approved suppliers.  Some labs who have the space decide to sell or give away materials themselves. The ability to perform financial transactions is necessary to sell materials in the labs.  Punch cards can be used for those whose students have budgets for the semester.  Labs have told us they recommend that students buy more material than they need to use so that they can do a trial run. Many labs will also offer to test materials for students in advance.  We encourage makers to prototype their design in a less expensive material such as chipboard or MDF first.


materials cabinet

Marketing - Attracting makers to the space is critical to justifying the cost of tools and machines. A good way to do that is by giving tours, and for colleges, to ensure that the makerspace is on the admissions tour path.  Virtual tours can also be very effective.  Often, the makerspace is cited as a reason why prospective students chose a particular school. School and local clubs (such as robotics clubs) are often funded and a good source of users. One proven method is to use less busy hours to handle projects for other departments, outside users and alumni. Giving the space a unique identity with color, a logo, or decor can help make the space more attractive, and an engraved logo on wood or acrylic can be a great giveaway. 

marketing banner

Faculty Support - In a college setting, we were surprised to find that the high majority of faculty (around 94%) who send students to makerspaces, have never visited the space themselves. We recommend getting support at the department level to encourage faculty to have a better sense of what resources are available for them and their students. Collaborating with faculty can also help guide the learning outcomes.  In addition, many labs request material lists or get syllabi so that they can prepare for materials in advance.  Buying regularly and in bulk can help bring the cost of materials down.
Venting and Environment - Since many machines require venting, it is ideal to use a space that has venting to the outside via an outside wall or roof venting. We know that many spaces are placed in converted or retrofitted areas and that space is at a premium, so if venting is not possible, use a machine that comes with its own venting.  Humidity can be challenging when it comes to 3D filament and wood that can warp, so keep filament vacuum sealed until opened and wood clamped, and ideally horizontal.  Acrylic covers can be a good way to isolate smaller machines to keep them clean and protected - and are a good student project.  Most labs have a “clean” (3D printers and lasers) and “dirty” area (wood shop, metal shop).
Evening Out User Load - Trying to spread out when users come into the space will help ensure makers have access in a timely manner.  Many spaces are open late and are staffed with student workers.  We consistently hear that spring semesters, when final projects are due, are the busiest times.  Letting students know they may get more personal consulting from the staff on off peak hours may entice them to start earlier.  Scheduling machines can be a way to ensure a steady stream of visitors.

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