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By Andrew Gregory, HackSpace Magazine.

STEAMhouse differed from most spaces we’ve been to. The usual paradigm is that everyone’s welcome, for a small fee, finances are tight, and there’s a range of ages and seriousness to the makers there.

This is a different offering entirely. It’s part of Birmingham City University, it’s open to businesses (this includes sole traders and people who are just starting out and who need a leg up), and there’s a focus on product development. This is a place for people who want to get things done.

“You have to be a member to use STEAMhouse”, Business Development Manager Sophia Tarr tells us. “To be eligible to be a member, you have to be a company or have a Unique Tax Reference. The application isn’t difficult; the most important things we need to know are what it is you’re trying to do; what product idea you want to work on. We take the time to go over your idea with you, and see what we can offer you. We don’t like to say no!”

“You don’t have to have a business plan, because a lot of the time, especially with the business route, they’re obsessed with getting a business plan, and actually they haven’t even got their concept together.

A good business plan has to be a live document, as well. Some people do one; it kills them. There’s something called a concept overview that people do instead of a business plan. It has a lot of the same information, but is much less detailed. If you go for massive amounts of funding, you will need a business plan, because [anyone willing to put money in] will want to see that you’ve thought about it.”

“It’s such a curse that people think you’ve got to do one straight away when you don’t even know what you’re making yet. We wouldn’t put that pressure on you.”

STEAMhouse employs a team of technicians to help its members in the area they’re working on – the four specialisms are metal, wood, print, and digital design. It feels like a formalised version of the makerspace phenomenon where there’s often someone on hand to help out, with the exception that the experts here keep regular hours, and you won’t feel like you’re pestering them or stopping them from getting their own work done.

TEARDOWN

Like the Royal Marines, the STEAMhouse experts want to take your idea to bits and rebuild it stronger: “We have two dedicated teardown spaces,” Sophia tells us. “Some of the companies don’t want to do the teardown, but they always come out smiling.

A lot of the designers go through the teardown process, and also get 3D models out of it to help them refine the design, so it’s a useful process.”

This is something we’d not seen before: a formal recognition that breaking something is a key part of making it better. We talk about failure being iterative [and it is!], but if you can take a concept to bits in the presence of an expert, and let them guide you through likely failure points or ways you can make the manufacture cheaper, you might save yourself months or years of trial and error.

The makerspace itself is huge and full of goodies – there’s a woodworking area with band-saws, a steamer for bending wood for furniture, a huge CNC machine, many, many metalworking tools including a welding station, an area for print and textiles, plus a load of computers with all the 3D design software you’ll ever need.

So what are the fees? “STEAMhouse is fully funded, so you’re not charged for anything. It’s a combination of European funding, Arts Council England, and Birmingham City University; you just need to demonstrate that you’ve done twelve hours working within STEAMhouse to become a member.

That’s not twelve hours a week; that’s twelve hours full stop. And if you have a meeting or any inductions here, it counts towards those hours.”

If you’re interested in making tables and chairs and you have no experience of doing that, STEAMhouse isn’t the right place for you. But, if you’ve got a design idea or a prototype, and you’re local to Birmingham, this is a fabulous resource.

Feeling inspired? Get involved with STEAMhouse by checking out our upcoming events or by applying for your free membership here.

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