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Bridging the Gap Between Construction and Makerspaces

06/15/2020 Article

When I think of a makerspace, ingenious skilled craftsmen who develop project-based learning programs come to mind. Sure, I might be dating myself here, but in junior high school, I absolutely loved woodshop. If I had it my way back then, I would have stayed in my 3rd-period woodworking class cutting, stamping leather and staining wood for the majority of the day. Using power tools, carefully splicing leather, and etching pieces into bookmarkers or wrist bands brought a sense of inner peace.

Although somewhat familiar, the makerspace concept is notably light years ahead of conventional traditions because of technology. In many respects, the community model is a revitalization of the current interdisciplinary standard of learning by forming a multi-dimensional platform that challenges old perspectives and educational constructs. Integrating strategies through a cooperative learning style preserves program integrity. The result merges vocational components to complement digital and physical technologies.

Located in Houston’s 2nd Ward East End Historical District, TXRX Labs is a designer’s dream and one of the best-kept secrets in the city. Out of 700 makerspaces throughout the country, the lab’s “Innovative and Educational Collaborative” is anything but average. The approach lends itself to explore the fields of science, technology, engineering and math while providing a comfortable atmosphere ripe for apprentices and entrepreneurs. Anyone who is willing to illustrate their talent through the use of specialized tools can functionally operate them through TXRX. Their investment in providing opportunities for craft professionals or anyone interested in this initiative complements the makerspace philosophy. It is a golden opportunity to utilize 3D printers, video production equipment, button makers, projectors and practical tools to help creatives shine.

When our Houston Area Urban League team initially visited TXRX Labs in 2018, its external frame was an obscure industrialized structure expanding approximately one city block. Walking into the entryway, the buzzing of working parts and manipulation of machinery filled the acoustics of their enormous architectural 800 square foot formation. The space was adorned by towering ceilings, steel beams, rustic or reusable artifacts occupied by heavy equipment and private tables with tools.

As a partner within the Greater Houston United Way THRIVE Coaching collaborative, it certainly helps this interview. More importantly, it gives our community-based organizations a chance to really unpack how partnerships support Houston’s Upskills Employment momentum at large. This year, I finally had a chance to reconnect with Joseph Miller, the Educational Director from TXRX, who was more than willing to discuss the mission and expansion of TXRX in Houston. And why not? It is an exceptional organization.

CW: I’ve always been curious to know, what does the name TXRX mean and how does it relate to the Makerspace concept?   

JM: Well, it’s kind of a nerdy joke. It refers to how pins are labeled on a computer chip. The transmit pins are labeled TX 0, TX 1 and TX 2. The receive pins are labeled RX 0, RX 1, RX 2, etc. So the name TXRX really means transmitting and receiving. Our mission is to transmit and receive information, gaining knowledge around tools as well as technology.

CW: Now, that is unique and a great branding strategy fusing the two identities. How does TXRX Labs connect with educational projects?    

JM: As a lifelong learner and educator, teaching is something I love to do and have done at every level. Teaching and learning were all around. My mother was a math teacher. I tutored all through high school. After graduation, I tutored premed students in the West University area. During my 4th year at Rice University, I decided to take a couple of years off to teach in Montessori schools and tutor K through 12 to gain exposure.

After graduation, I left Texas and moved to Colorado. I started a college tutoring business and for 10 years tutored the likes of premed students who studied organic chemistry, physics and biochemistry.

Then in 2015, Roland von Kurnatowski, who is the president of TXRX Labs, placed a call. Prior to this, Roland and I crafted creative works all throughout college. Being a visionary, he wanted to build a youth and educational program. He is not just an executive director; he is a fearless leader and genuine fabricator at heart. We would not be able to do what we do and keep our identity without him leading the way. So, captivated by the idea, I decided to sell my business, move back to Texas and join forces to help structure the youth program at TXRX Labs.

CW: It’s amazing and such a rich concept, particularly as it pertains to youth participation. With your target audience in mind, how did this concept grow to include the Upskills model?

JM: Actually, TXRX was formed by a great group of really smart NASA contractors who, as Rice graduates, were trying to pool resources to utilize some of the new technology coming online – CNC plasma cutters, routers and 3D printers. The initiative grew from a meetup group in a coffee house to a 500 square foot co-working space near Rice University, then to a 2000 square foot space. In 2011, they moved to a 50,000 square foot facility allowing TXRX to become a fixture in the community. TXRX offers 1,000 classes a year on all the technology and tools collected: building their model around a classic makerspace.pq1 Now, it allows TXRX to offer members access to shared tools and workspace that normally could not fit in a garage. Classes are now provided to the community where they can learn how to use these tools and the technology behind them.

We’ve since expanded our business to include K-12 education, which I started in 2015, and then professional fabrication services. Essentially, we help members with some projects they are unable to complete; maybe they do woodworking but unable to weld so we offer to help to bridge the metalworking portion of their project. This is actually how the fabrication services started – as a service to our members, but our unique skillset expanded because we were able to do some work that fabrication shops could not. Currently, we do design in fabrication for oil and gas, transportation, medical industry and various small craftsmanship shops around Houston.

CW: The expansion certainly complements the growth in Houston and with expansion comes the demand. Can you talk about your members?   

JM: Traditionally, they have been inventors, tinkers, crafters and young professionals interested in starting their own business or working on passion projects. Our members have turned their projects into full-time small business ventures resulting in minimal viable products that have been taken to market. There are instances where an iteration or improved model design will find its way to TXRX where the technology can help accelerate the production based on accessing the 20,000 square feet of shared workspace to complete projects. The space is primarily used for prototyping, designing and testing centers since we have four robotic companies.

CW: Does the prototype concept make TXRX unique and is it an offering that other makerspaces may not have? 

JM: I think TXRX is fairly unique, but we are not the only makerspace that supports prototyping and small business creation. Being based in the oil and gas region of the country, however, makes us uniquely positioned to help stream a lot of precision metalwork, and automation to help the industry from the makerspace perspective. So, there are electromechanical components that work in the oil and gas industry that require prototyping that can be done in a makerspace environment. Most of the computer prototyping is done in clean rooms so it is difficult to do computer-based or chip-based prototyping. It is hard for makerspaces to do computer prototyping, but we are set up to support industrial, mechanical and electrical prototyping with extensive robotic devices and machines or inventions that people are working on.

To segue, this has been an area of interest that we have had and a good boost for those in the rail as well as the oil and gas industry. Over the course of five years, we have received offers from larger companies with 10 to 100 employees or a large corporation that would like to start a small new sector for prototyping and design so they have co-located at TXRX labs.

CW: The TXRX business strategy is taking the old foundational model and bridging it with the new in a way that provides creatives to the chance to scale their work in an evolutionary way. It’s so forward-thinking considering how businesses are continuing to operate today under the same business paradigm.   

JM: Well, in response I would say it is more like a renaissance. We used to be a manufacturing powerhouse of the world and in a lot of cities, it was a huge part of their economy. Here in the East End, it was a very diversified and vibrant manufacturing center of Houston before oil and gas forced it to become somewhat one dimensional. This has happened in some very important cities across the country – Milwaukie, Detroit and Pittsburg were all manufacturing centers. Their cities, towns, neighborhood and economies were built around manufacturing. They may exist in different forms but these cities had to figure out how to diversify. For instance, Pittsburg had a strong manufacturing culture but had to figure out what to do after the demand for steel collapsed. The important element is to figure out how to diversify our talent pool and support small business creation before we lose that talent.

That is another goal of the maker hub. How do we save the intellectual capital because there is a whole generation of both men and women in their 50’s or 60’s who are brilliant manufactures machinists, fabricators and welders. We need to capture that genius before we lose it and preserve some of the manufacturing culture as well as the resources in Houston. The maker hub is really trying to think about the renaissance of manufacturing in America and that is going to involve the support of small businesses; small makers or producers that have anywhere from 5 to 20 employees. They sell high-end products and locally to offer living wages to local residence. It will create sustainable communities where people can live and work in the same neighborhood. We don’t have to continue gentrifying neighborhoods, but instead support the existing culture. Give them good jobs and also protect the identity within the United States.

Within our job training and educational program, we have some incredible makers. A machinist instructor, Gilbert Elton is an industry leader with 50 years of expertise who ran his business for over 35 years. He is vested with TXRX to not only carry on the legacy but eager to pass on his skill set to ensure that Houston stays on top of the manufacturing world. Our electronics assembly program and veteran, Mario Holmes is not only a welder but an electronics technician. We try to diversity by having a team with wide-ranging skill sets.

CW: Do you have women who work on your team at TXRX? How does NCCER play a role in your trainings?   

JM: Typically, most machine shops don’t have a lot of women, but more than half of our directors are women. Our welding instructor, Luz Stanback; woodshop instructor, Joyce Lynn; and makerspace director, Chuck Chu, are all part of the TXRX team. We have a much-diversified team and NCCER instructors on staff. We teach NCCER Core, Drywall and will be adding both Electrical Systems and Crane Operator.

We really love NCCER because they have a wide range of skill sets that they represent and they really understand the entire construction industry. It is useful for us because we have woodworkers and electrical systems technicians that we want to be able to train. Additionally, as we move equipment, we need to have people that know how to Rig. Rigging is part of our CORE curriculum. We also need crane operations to run our cranes in the shop. For us, anything involving machines, we need people who are good with construction tools and electrical systems and load machines onto trucks. NCCER has the breadth to offer training for the skills we need.

Also, right now we are poised to help a lot of young folks who are out of work and looking for jobs. Usually, they are looking for jobs because they have not thrived in the traditional butts in seats educational system. They need to get out of those seats and use their hands. It is really exciting to be in the hands-on learning world because we work for disadvantaged youth and those youths are the exact demographic that we need to fill this huge labor gap right now. We have a great group of really talented people who are not getting proper training and a bunch of employers looking for good workers.

CW: Well, this was such an amazing interview. Your team is doing some incredible work to help creatives and craft professionals fuel their passion while leveraging a viable business to market platform. Thank you for all that you and your team are doing.   

JM: I appreciate it. Thank you for the opportunity.

*Since the COVID-19 pandemic, TXRX has partnered with the City of Houston as well as the Houston Medical Center by offering training to create facemasks and face shields for Hermann Memorial, MD Anderson and Methodist Hospital personnel while meeting the demand for testing sites around the Houston area.

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