Founded as a student club in 1938, the MIT Hobby Shop’s name suggests a folksy workshop. But today this busy facility is anything but quaint—it’s an essential element in MIT’s culture of innovation and hands-on making. Its members pursue hobbies—from designing furniture to crafting musical instruments—but the Hobby Shop also bursts with entrepreneurial activity, as they invent, prototype, and launch start-ups to bring their innovations to the marketplace.
“What’s unique about the Hobby Shop,” says director Ken Stone ’72, “is that it is open to all MIT students, faculty, alumni, and staff, and is not connected to any department or lab. We encourage anyone who wants to build, and we give them the space, instruction, and equipment to do it.”
Since the Shop began tracking use in 1994, it has attracted more than 4,700 members, with 89 new members last fall alone. The Hobby Shop also supports specific classes, including Product Design and Development, a joint MIT Sloan and Mechanical Engineering course.
When Ben Polito ’99, president and cofounder of Pika Energy, launched his renewable energy company in 2010, he initially used the Hobby Shop to build and test wind turbine blades. “We built prototypes of wind turbines, made generators, shafts, and castings,” says Polito. “We even prototyped our manufacturing process there. It is fair to say that in its formative years, Pika Energy was built at the Hobby Shop.”
Newly expanded and renovated, the Hobby Shop has a spirit of creativity and community. In addition to traditional woodworking and metalworking tools, it has a new 4 × 8 foot computer-controlled router; a water jet capable of cutting materials from titanium to granite; a new welding area; and a computer design room with a 3-D printer.
When Pranay Jain, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering, arrived at MIT in 2013 he headed for the Hobby Shop. His idea was to make a caliper for blind users that can make measurements as fine as one sixteenth of an inch. His new product, the Tactile Caliper, has a mechanical slide that forms Braille dots as it moves so it can be read by touch.
“I created a prototype, but a critical piece of the plastic instrument failed,” says Jain, a research fellow at the Tata Center for Technology and Design at MIT . “I couldn’t understand why. One professor suggested I make it out of stainless steel. I had never cut sheets of metal with such precision. I showed the design to Ken, and he said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ And it worked perfectly.”
Jain and his business partner Anshul Singhal, a fellow graduate student in Mechanical Engineering, have placed an order with a manufacturer for 10,000 Tactile Calipers, taking the invention from idea to product in 18 months. The National Braille Press recently honored the duo with the Touch of Genius Award for Innovation. And they have other products in the works.
Ken Stone sees the growing popularity of maker spaces as a trend. “MIT has always been a leader in this field. It seems the rest of the world is catching on to a core value of an MIT education—that is, the ‘manus’ part of ‘mens et manus’, i.e., mind and hand.”
“The Hobby Shop is not just a machine shop, it’s a community,” says Jain. “You get to know what other people are making, and get a lot of help. The Hobby Shop is central to the community of innovators and makers at MIT. For me, it’s a ladder of growth.”