In cramped and gloriously cluttered office space in New York City, a group of young people gets together to tinker. Part workshop and part art studio, the space is a home away from home for a constantly rotating group that includes Wall Street, fashion industry, tech support, a couple of full-fledged engineers and a barista or two. What has drawn them together is their love of building gizmos, improving gadgets and just plain working with their hands. The rent is relatively cheap, one of the members told me, and there are worse ways to spend what little downtime they have.
Large tools like drill presses and welding equipment were bought cheaply on Craigslist, while smaller items such as voltmeters and soldering irons showed up as gifts from members. Gray metal shelves also bought on Craigslist are packed with projects in various stages of completion along with boxes of complex-looking wiring harnesses, partially disassembled computers, circuit boards, jars of screws and one box labeled, "Totally useless crap. Do not touch! I mean it!"
One of the members creates steampunk jewelry that employs tiny LCDs, which she sells online and to a few boutiques. Another reconfigures the shells of very serious looking lab equipment from the 1950s into household appliances, like toasters and coffeemakers. And a couple of others play around with energy, scavenging for digital technology and RFID. The projects run the gamut from artsy to hardcore tech, and they're done on the cheap with existing components bought on the Internet, traded or found at the local dump.
These ambitious hobbyists have created a "hackerspace," part of a growing worldwide trend. At present, there are hundreds of them scattered around the globe conducting their own highly creative R&D projects, sharing expertise, resources and enthusiasm. They are very much the garage bands of the high-tech industry. They have their own blogs and YouTube videos. The mainstream media have even begun to take notice.
At a time when most small and midsize companies are cutting R&D budgets, it's encouraging to see this kind of motivation and creativity. Hackerspaces have actually grown since the downturn in the economy. Will the next Apple or Google arise from a hackerspace? Maybe. But at the very least they look as if they might provide incremental change to existing industries.
What isn't encouraging is the fact that it's been a long time since there was a similar effort made in the bulk vending arena. Granted, bulk is not an industry that has traditionally been welcoming of sophisticated technology, or even dramatic change. But why not?
A lot of very sophisticated technology is now a relatively cheap commodity, a hackerspace resident told me. The argument could be made that part of the appeal of bulk vending is its sameness -- the traditional. If that's true, then it certainly has not applied to product. Over the past decade, the industry has seen an enormous transformation in product choices, pricing and target demographics.
As the story famously goes, bulk vending is perhaps the only industry in which a company owner can look at a piece of vital equipment and say with pride, "I've had that same machine out for 25 years and haven't changed a thing." That may be a fine ROI, but it's a highly risky proposition for moving ahead in the 21st century.