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New hands-on group 'making' things happen

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Today’s generation is disconnected from the physical world, lacking interest in subjects such as math and science as well as interpersonal communication skills.

But there is a growing culture popping up all over the world that is filled with people who want to be a part of the “old-fashioned” way of doing things. They call themselves “makers” and they want to get their name out there.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, building and fixing things in your own garage was the thing. But no one does that anymore. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, people stopped doing things themselves and began to rely on other people to do it for them. We wanted to create a group with people who want to start fixing and building things again,” explained Joe Spanier, publicity chair of River City Labs, a local group of makers.

The group meets each Thursday at 6 p.m. in the middle of Studio 825, which sits across from the restaurant Sugar located in Peoria’s Warehouse District. Members get together to share ideas and work on a variety of projects. “It’s all a part of the ‘do-it-yourself’ infrastructure for people who want to start projects,” Spanier said.

Currently, they are working on making their own electronic vending machine from which they will someday be able to purchase items such as LEDs, resistors, and other electronic items in case someone has the sudden need for an item while working on a project.

A project that Jay Babin, director at large for River City Labs, is looking forward to starting is his attempt to create a clone of his garden gargoyle so that he can have two. He plans to make a mold using software on a homemade 3D printer.

Another member, as a joke for his boss, used the 3D printer to create his own Pez dispenser top that looks like boss’s head. One of the two female members of the group who is a ceramic pottery artist wants to someday build her own kiln.

Other projects that members have made include making airplane parts and a scale model of their building using a drone, which they also enjoy racing.

 “A lot of us get ADD and start playing around but that’s ok. A lot of useful concepts get thrown around,” said Spanier.

Not all projects they work on are individual projects of leisure. They are also part of E-Nable, an online community made of “passionate volunteers” who make and sell low-priced, affordable prosthetics for children in Third World countries and less fortunate children in the United States.

“It’s really nice to know that a child who was born missing fingers or even an entire hand can now play catch with his brother,” Spanier said.

River City Labs is built solely from its member base. The group receives no outside help, no grants or any financial assistance. But, of course, donations are always welcome.

Monetary donations are helpful but the group also welcomes the donations of tools and old functioning computers and machines. Most of what members have, such as their CNC machines,  was donated by Probotix. “The owner of Probotix started out building things in his basement so they are highly supportive of what we’re doing,” Spanier said.

The main focus of River City Labs is to educate others and share ideas with people who are interested in the manufacturing of anything. Having previous experience or copious amounts of IT knowledge is not necessary. Sharing and collaborating ideas is what makers thrive on and diversity is the key.

“There is room for anyone who does anything. Saying that you can’t do something or that you don’t know enough is no excuse. People come here to learn. Anyone can learn. That’s the point. People always make excuses saying that they don’t know anything or ‘I want to make this but you guys don’t do that.’ That is no excuse! Everything is welcome,” Spanier said. Classes are scheduled periodically to help those who want to learn.

Thursday nights are official meeting nights for members; however, every last Thursday of the month the meeting is open to the public. River City Labs also participates in First Friday each month. Interested individuals can attend four times before becoming a member.

Currently, there are 22 members but the group wants to expand. The goal is to expand to 30 members by the end of the year. One doesn’t have to know a member in order to attend.

“When the group first started, only two people knew each other. Everyone else was total strangers. We were all just people who were laid back, fun and had similar ideas,” Spanier said.

The group started at a Peoria Tech Talkers gathering. “Afterwards I just said, ‘Hey. I want to start a Makers group. Who wants to join?’ and they all said, ‘I do!’ and it was all history from there. It was that simple. We planned to meet up at 3030 Coffee that Sunday to talk about it and when we did everyone showed up and brought friends with them. That was in November of 2013. We became official in June of this year.”

Membership is $35 a month for a standard membership. There are several benefits of being a member depending upon the level of membership. A discount of 10% is given to those holding an annual membership. Other benefits include free classes, a key to the workspace, and 24-hour access.

“This is a warm, friendly environment. We just ask that you have a good attitude,” he said.

If interested in joining or for more information, visit


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