Make it at The Mill

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April 9, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss
New ‘maker space’ in Northeast helps members collaborate and create

Just south of the Quarry Center in Northeast lies a mid-sized industrial building that is home to a truly impressive collection of tools and technology.

Within its walls are 3D printers that can create models from plastic thread, industrial sewing machines, sign cutters, a laser that can slice through wood and etch a logo onto metal, a table saw that shuts down in a fraction of a second if anything conductive (like a finger) approaches its blade and much more. There’s even a device called a ShopBot, which exactingly cuts shapes out of wood by reading design files loaded into a computer.

Welcome to The Mill, a new collaborative workspace for “makers,” hackers, artists, engineers, hobbyists, or anyone else who wants access to its space and tools. After signing up for a membership, visitors will have access to all the aforementioned equipment, plus sign cutters, soldering stations, drum sanders, computers with design and drafting software, and a variety of other tools. The Mill is also in the process of adding a metal shop, complete with a plasma cutter and welding equipment.

As impressive as the collection of gear is, the tools aren’t really what The Mill is all about. It’s about the community. It’s about bringing people together in a collaborative space that stresses access over ownership. It’s a concept that is growing in popularity, said The Mill’s director of operations Greg Flanagan.

He cites the rise of services like Nice Ride and HourCar, as well as co-working spaces, community gardens and similar programs. The Mill, he said, is about giving people access to resources in a responsible way. “You might not always need the equipment or the space, but it’s there if you need it,” said Flanagan.

Even The Mill itself is the result of collaborative thinking. With a shop teacher for a father and a background in computers, Flanagan said he had been dreaming of starting a place like The Mill for years. So too had The Mill’s president Brian Boyle. Yet, the two of them had never met and were both pursuing their goals independently.

“Both of us had been filling our friends’ ears with this idea for years,” Flanagan said.

When introduced through mutual friends, Flanagan and Boyle recognized the commonality of their goals and combined forces. After months of hard work and planning, The Mill was born early this year.

Conceived as a nonprofit educational space and a community resource, The Mill is already being used in a variety of ways. Several of the first crop of Mill members signed up to use the laser, which can be used for everything from engraving glass to building custom iPhone cases. Some groups are using the space as a place to meet and discuss technology projects. Companies have purchased memberships for employees for creative projects rather than outsource them. All of this has happened while the space itself was still under construction.

It hasn’t taken long for The Mill to attract people who want to be involved with the organization’s goal of building community through collaboration. One of the students to take the orientation class on safely using the laser was a St. Paul public school teacher who went home and rewrote the entire curriculum for the course. He now teaches the laser certification class.

“He told me that he wanted to be a part of this no matter what,” Boyle said. “When I asked why he said that the schools are broken. Places like this are going to pull up the slack.”

Boyle said he thinks of The Mill as a place of learning. “The mental shorthand that’s developed by doing stuff like this, from failing, from having to iterate, is something that helps people in every aspect of their lives,” he said.

He mentions projects he’s worked on with his son, who is 3 years old. “I know he doesn’t understand all of it right now,” said Boyle. “But right now he’s creating these islands of knowledge. It’ll be up to him later to build the bridges between them.”

Those bridges don’t just form in the minds of the young, and both Flanagan and Boyle are looking forward to the days when a variety of The Mill’s users bounce concepts off one another.

“I’m really excited to get people in here who are super creative and armed with some great ideas,” Flanagan said.

Boyle agrees, “I want to get to a point where we have engineers talking to artists in here and seeing what comes of that. This place is nothing without the community.”


At a glance

The Mill is located at 2300 Kennedy St. NE and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Membership of The Mill is available in monthly increments. One month is $125. A six-month membership is $672, or $112 monthly. A one-year membership is $1200, or $100 a month. Add-on memberships for an additional family member are available for $50 a month.

The Mill will open it doors to the public for a pair of open houses on April 21, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and April 25, 5 to 8 p.m.

For more information, visit mnmill.org.