Mill City

Creatives are finding new ways to get their products made—together

The Mill is a place where you can cut metal with a plasma cutter, a machine that slices through the material at 45,000 degrees Fahrenheit. (That’s four times hotter than the sun.) Or scan your face and print out a 3-D bust of your head. Maybe your goal is something more modest, like sewing a tote or making laser-monogrammed napkin rings. You can do that, too.

That might not have been possible until the Mill came along. There, the public can access equipment—laser cutters, CNC routers, 3-D printing,  woodshop tools—that is prohibitively expensive, thus putting it out of reach for hobbyists or small businesses.

It’s a model that has been catching fire around here: Big Table Studio, a design and printing workspace in downtown St. Paul, offers access to print facilities, hosts classes and poster shows, and allows members to sell their wares in the shop. (There’s another screenprinting collective called Leg Up Studio in northeast Minneapolis.) Similarly, North Country Woodshop in Burnsville bills itself as “a health club . . . But instead of treadmills, we have tablesaws.” Undoubtedly, artists and makers are seeing shared resources as a necessity.

“We want to be an incubator and help people develop their ideas,” Mill owner Brian Boyle says. “It’s a lower-risk way of getting ideas out there and enabling small businesses to keep going.” Artists, engineers, and makers of all kinds pay a monthly fee for access to the equipment, and then are free to feed their small businesses—or their curiosity.

Take Micah, who often shows up at the Mill with his pit-bull mix, Hannah. Micah is a cardiac-care nurse, but became interested in 3-D printer capabilities. So interested, in fact, that he went home, taught himself CAD (a computer-modeling program), built his own, and now teaches the Mill’s 3-D printer class. Micah also lost a knob off his stovetop—so he just printed himself a new one with his homemade printer.

“Moore’s Law holds that computing power doubles every 18 months,” says Greg Flanagan, Boyle’s right-hand man and the Mill’s director of operations. Boyle adds, “And who can personally keep up? The shared resource idea is everywhere because of what’s happening socially and economically. The efficiency is obvious.”

Also obvious is the effect the shared space has on creativity.

“The atmosphere is just electric in here—so much good energy,” Boyle says. “People are doing things they love to do. You know, making things is not kitschy—kids do it intuitively. We unlearned it at some point, but it’s a big deal to make stuff. I love that people are turning off their TV and starting to make things again.” 
 

THE MILL: 3 THINGS TO KNOW

1. Membership costs range from $125 per month to $1,200 per year.
2. A safety class is  required before using each piece of equipment in the shop.
3. Contact: 2300 Kennedy St. NE, Ste. 130, Mpls., 651-592-3372, mnmill.org
 

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