The Mill offers creative opportunities for “makers” and fixers in Minneapolis

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Call it the tale of the little popcorn popper that could. Last year for Christmas, my Grandma bought us a movie theater popcorn maker which quickly became the favorite appliance in our house. Until our youngest severed the cord with the cat’s nail clipper, that is, melting the scissors and narrowly escaping a shocking end, himself.

Luckily for this popcorn loving family, Hennepin county has sponsored a series of “Fix-It Clinics” aimed at keeping just such repairable appliances out of the local garbage stream. We were paired with Brian Boyle, who patiently instructed us in the fine art of cord replacement. As it turns out, we were in competent hands that day, as Brian, in his normal capacity as President and founder of Minneapolis’ The Mill, grapples with far more taxing mechanical problems every day. In between wrestling with stubborn screws, we learned about the many opportunities available through The Mill. Have an itch to build your own, boat or sofa or bike frame, for example, but lack access to that necessary $20,000 piece of specialized equipment?

No worries. Boyle has you covered.

The Mill is a shared, subscription workshop; a “maker’s” space where, in exchange for a monthly fee, members have access to a full wood shop, metal shop, industrial sewing machine, serger, and the most popular piece of equipment, the laser etcher. Tucked into an industrial area just off Broadway Avenue in Northeast, The Mill functions as high tech workshop/business incubator for the mechanically inclined.

I couldn’t resist seeing the space for myself. Micah Roth, shop manager and an instructor, was nice enough to show me around.

The first of the three spacious work areas is “the clean room” a greeting area and classroom which also houses the heat press, a vinyl cutter, the sewing equipment and the laser etcher. The clean room also houses Roth’s particular baby, the 3-D printers. “They’re RepRap machines,” he explained. “Replicating Rapid Prototypers, capable of building their own parts.” Roth periodically leads classes at The Mill, helping students build their own 3-D printers. They are hypnotizing machines, quickly forming structures from thin layers of liquid plastic. Though I could see establishing a membership just to have access to one of these miracle machines they are by no means the only bit of magic in the shop.

Behind the clean room lies the metal shop with a C and C plasma cutter, welding table, MIG welder, drill and other metalworking equipment. The third room is a fully functioning and stocked woodworking studio.

Also in residence were the remnants of team 1.21 Jigawatt’s 2012 Red Bull Creation contest offering, The Hunt for Red September; A Robotic Submarine Simulator Game. And, yes. It is as impressive as its name. The Mill hosted team 1.21 Jigawatt as they built their interactive game, which seems a perfect pairing. Where else would one construct a Volkswagen-sized moving submarine control center?

On the day I was there, four people were engaged in various projects around the three shops, although Micah says that the current membership stands at about 50. Of these, they’ve had several breakout innovators who have fulfilled Boyle’s vision of the space as an incubator for small businesses. Spark Devices and Arctic Innovations have taken their ideas straight from the Mill to reality as Kickstart offerings and The Mill hopes to help more of their members reap financial success from their creativity through the addition an in-house retail space.

Luckily, membership is not the only way to enjoy the benefits of The Mill; non-members can take advantage of The Mill and its staff’s expertise through their regularly offered classes; the offerings are truly staggering, everything from design to woodworking, using plasma and vinyl cutters to sewing, crafting and soap making. Build that 3-D printer or construct a custom 6-pack carrier– reading the class list is a trip to the candy store for creative types.

Additionally, Boyle will be hosting the next Hennepin County Fix-It Clinic on December 8th, offering up use of his space to rescue the next wave of broken appliances, electronics and tattered clothing from the landfill. (More information on what to bring or how to become a volunteer “fixer” here.)

I’ll be there of course… Who knows what else in our house has fallen victim to the cat nail clippers? Maybe I’ll pick up a few new ideas along the way. Christmas IS coming, and I know at least one husband who would enjoy his own 6-pack carrier.

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