Horween tour pics

A group of intrepid PS1 members took a tour of the Horween leather factory last month. Horween used to be one of many leather manufacturers clustered on the north branch of the Chicago River. It is the only one still remaining.

Horween has been able to keep its manufacturing plant located in Chicago by going upscale. Today, the company is primarily a provider of high-end shoe leather.

Oh, and they also make all the footballs. I will get back to this in a bit.

Below find some photos from the tour. One important note before the slideshow begins: we got hit with a ton of fascinating information on this tour, and I remember about 5% of it. I will pass along whatever tidbits I can, plus maybe a few things I made up. You’ve been warned! Click any picture for a larger version.


Horween has been on its present site for going on a century now, and the building is about as confusingly laid out as you might expect. Think Willy Wonka factory, except it smells disconcertingly like beef.

Also, given how nondescript the buildings facing Elston are, the alley sports a fair number of kick-ass murals:

Horween processes both horse hides and steer hides. I expected some strong scents in the factory, but I was mostly prepared for chemical smells. This room smells distinctly like meat. I believe the hides at this point are “pickled,” meaning packed in salt for preservation. They need to be shaved and soaked before the tanning process begins.

Some real talk: horse butts are awesome. Or so I’ve come to understand. Leather from horse butts apparently has a very specific thickness and grain and set of calluses that make it an especially good material for extremely fancy shoes. Horween doesn’t traffic in horse hides so much as in horse butts. And butt liquor:

The process of turning hides into leather is essentially one of stripping out the natural fats and replacing them with ones that will remain stable over time. And of course adding color and finish to the product.

There are two types of tanning processes used at Horween: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. Vegetable tanning involves soaking the hides for months in vats of liquid infused with various tree barks. These vats looks  shallow, but don’t be fooled! They are about seven feet deep:

That guy in the glasses is Nick Horween, by the way, our extremely gracious tour guide and nth-generation leather maker. His great-something-grandfather came over from the Ukraine after completing military service at the age of, like, fifteen and deciding that being a Jew in the Ukrainian army in the 18th century was maybe not such a hot career path. (TIL: there actually were Jewish Cossacks. I’m not saying Nick Horween’s ancestors were Cossacks. I’m just saying I learned this after spending some time on Wikipedia today.)

Great-something-grandpa Horween had been trained as an Old World leather tanner, and he continued plying the trade here in Chicago. Chicago was a good place for leather making, on account of the nearby stockyards.

The chrome tanning process involves chemicals and is not especially Instagram-worthy.

At the end of the tanning process, the hides still aren’t leather. In fact, the chrome-tanned hides are distinctly blue (referred to as wet blue). Below is a horse butt. You can see the grain:

And here is a stack of wet blue hides:

Leather is an organic product (duh), which means it doesn’t come in uniform thickness. This is a problem if you’re selling to shoemakers who want to sell a uniform product, so the next step is to feed the leather through a sort of horizontal bandsaw that shaves the leather to a consistent width.

Maybe you’re wondering, like me, how often you need to sharpen a saw blade that is used to shave tanned horse hides. And the answer is: always. There is a sharpener built into the machine that is constantly honing the blade as it passes through the hide.

Horween has versions of this machine that have been in operation for about 100 years. They just keep replacing the parts. In general, there is a lot of DIY going on at Horween. They have two carpenters on staff.

This is where they dye the leather, which is also the only part of the tour where Nick was cagey about me taking photographs. The chalkboards on the dye vats show a color recipe. Purchasers work with Horween to achieve a specific look.

High-end leather is processed again, and again, and again, always by hand, over a course of months. Here the leather is being carefully scraped by hand:

Oh, yeah, about the footballs. Horween makes them. All of them. As in, all the ones made out of leather that are officially used by the NFL and presumably by other teams that care about using real footballs. The balls are not made out of cows, not pigs.

The pattern on football leather is embossed by a very heavy press:

Towards the end of the process, the leather is sliced down for thickness yet again. This room actually smells delightful. It smells like Ricardo Montalban sounds.

The end of the process is, of course, not the end of the process. The finished leather is now ready to become an input in an entirely new manufacturing process.

The Horween guest book:

A huge thank you to Nick Horween for allowing us to tour his factory. Below are some fun historical footnotes to end the tour. Go Pats! Also, read the framed letters. They are awesome (remember, click to embiggen).

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158 awesome people have switched to new member system, can still access PS1 tools

The member management system changeover is well underway, with more than 25% of members setting up accounts at:

membership.pumpingstationone.org

As a reminder! In about three weeks we will switch over PS1’s internal computer system to the new member management system, which means you will no longer be able to log into workstations with your old credentials. Which further means you will no longer be able to laser, or mill, or CNC plasma cut unless you have switched over.

The good news is switching over is easy. The better news is that it is both easy and fun, with 83% of participants reporting ASMR-style tingling in the backs of their knees. The best news is that we now have a super-cool video that walks you through the process in up to three dimensions:

Huge thank you to member Alisha Ciardi for putting this together!

People who prefer boring old words can find some written instructions here.

Do it now! Win with Wild Apricot!

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NOMCON: overview

PS1 sent two people to the first-even Nation of Makers Conference (NOMCON) in Santa Fe this year. In addition to attending, I hosted a session, “Realities of Makerspaces as a Business.”

I am on the hook to report back to the membership on the conference, which I plan to do via a series of blog posts. For this first one, a few high-level notes about the conference itself.

First, perhaps fittingly for an movement devoted to making things, there was an emphasis on practical outcomes. The idea was very much to organize conversations around topics deemed urgent by the community with the goal of defining project ideas and connecting people who could run with them. NoM itself isn’t really staffed to manage these projects on their own, so they want to act as more of an enabling organization.

Did it succeed on these terms? I have no idea. Probably it’s too early to say. I will say, though, that the makerspace “industry” feels a lot like a much larger version of individual makerspaces: full of ideas, under-resourced, and not especially organized. If any projects are going to move forward, it’s most likely going to be because some individual makerspaces somewhere decide to focus on them.

Second, everyone everywhere is facing the same issues. So much so that it’s a seems like a bad idea to try to solve a problem without at least looking around to see what others have done. And yet, this is mostly what we all do and probably will continue to do.

I say this not out of some deep-seated cynicism. It just doesn’t seem like the connective tissue is really there yet between makerspaces. And honestly, this is a tricky problem. How do you go about finding the 15 makerspaces in the country that have recently moved? How much time is required to track them down and drag advice out of them? The NoM Slack has actually been fairly active since the conference, so perhaps this will be a forum that achieves critical mass.

Third, the conference itself generated a few metric tons of paperwork, and my blog posts are not going to attempt to reproduce the contents of any sessions. If you’re interested, the 2018 agenda is still available on the NOMCON site. If you click any of the session titles, you will be taken to a doc with a list of attendees and notes from each session (although I still haven’t updated the doc from my session, so, yeah).

I’m going to be focusing instead on the some of the relevant bits I took away from each session, and in particular from some of the most interesting side conversations that took place.

Fourth, here’s an obligatory picture of Adam Savage, assembling a 3D-printed Rosie the Riveter:

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The building is up for sale. Take 5 minutes to help us chart a course

The Planning Working Group has begun its efforts to address the upcoming building sale, and our first task is applying some scope to the project. This is the type of undertaking that could take years to get our hands around, but we don’t really have years. Even if we see out the end of our current lease (big if), getting ourselves in shape for a building purchase or even a move will take time.

So let us know what you think we should should be thinking about. What should be the top questions we are trying to answer? Yes, the building sale is the priority, but there are a lot of questions wrapped up in the building sale. For example:

  • What does PS1 want to be ten years from now?
  • How big should it be?
  • Should its mission evolve?
  • Should PS1 offer additional services, like studio rental?
  • What is the potential market?
  • What financing sources are available to PS1?
  • What do we have to do make ourselves “finance-able”?

This is very much a brainstorming exercise. Take five minutes to head over to this form and share your thoughts.

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Member management changeover: this affects you

We are transitioning off of ps1auth, our current member management system, to a new commercial system that offers more capabilities. Transitioning as in, this is happening now, many members have already made the switchover. Here is the tl;dr:

  1. Switching over is easy — takes about 3 minutes
  2. You do not have to switch over
  3. but you will soon lose access to certain equipment if you don’t

Now here’s the just-the-right-length; please-read version…

Switching over is easy

You can do it right this very minute. You should do it right this very minute!

  1. Go to membership.pumpingstationone.org (note the change in address from the old member site)
  2. Click “Join us
  3. Choose the “Existing Member Migration – Free” membership level
  4. Fill out the super-fun forms on the next two pages:
    • Use the same email address you currently use for PS1
    • “AD Username” is the username you will use for internal systems such as the wiki and computers in the space. You can re-use your current username. No spaces or special characters, please.
  5. Submit your details. You might think you are now done, but you are not done! You will receive an invoice via email sometime after you register.
    • We have to transfer your membership details over by hand, so this can take a few days.
    • The invoice is for the month after your Paypal payments end. Do not worry: you are NOT double-paying for the current month.
  6. Once the email invoice arrives, pay it by supplying a credit card. This will establish a new set of recurring payments. Your Paypal payment will be cancelled automatically.

To reiterate: the new series of payment are timed so that they pick up exactly where your old Paypal payments leave off. You will not double-pay for any period. That’s it: a short sign-up form, and then pay the invoice. You are done. Crack a refreshing beverage and toast yourself for a job well done.

You do not have to switch over

You can ignore our pleading until the end of time and your Paypal payments will  continue to work.* Your membership will renew month after month. People will be born, people will die, the Earth will turn on its axis, for every season, etc. Life will go on.

But read on for a very major caveat.

If you don’t switch over, you will lose some access

Here’s the thing: in one month we will switch the internal computer system at PS1 over to the new membership system, at which point people on the old membership system will lose access to computers in the space. If you don’t ever use the internal computer system at PS1, you won’t notice. But if, say, you use the ShopBot or the Boss or any other tool at PS1 that requires logging into a work station, you most certainly will notice.

The changeover is not that far away. Switch now and your future self will thank you.

As an aside: if you are storing files on any computers in the space, a) keep in mind that there is never any guarantee those files will stick around and b) they absolutely will get wiped out during the member management system changeover, so now is a good time to back those files up.

Finally: we can help

If any of this is difficult you for any reason, let us know and we can make the transition happen for you. Just email help@pumpingstationone.org for assistance.

* Probably not until the end of time, to be honest. Sometime, somehow, PS1 will update its pricing structure and Paypal will definitively die. But you would have to deal with that eventuality anyway.

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All systems go: marathon paves the way for member management changeover

As you know, we are in the process of ripping the guts out of our member management system and replacing it with a commercial system called Wild Apricot. This is going to affect you, and hopefully eventually delight you, but these transitions are always a little complicated.

A brave band gathered recently for a Systems Group Marathon to lay the groundwork for this transition. PS:1 uses software called Active Directory (AD) to manage logins across our disparate systems. AD is what allows you to log into the wiki, the ShopBot, the website, etc., and soon our new learning management system with a single user name and password.

The marathon volunteers upgraded AD and got it working with Wild Apricot. This means that in the future, you will have “only” two passwords to manage: one for your payments to PS:1 and one for everything else. You shouldn’t need to touch payments very often, so this isn’t as hard as it sounds. Also, the new AD allows for self-service password reset, so no more desperate emails required if you get locked out.

Excitingly, Canvas is now up and running. Canvas, our new learning management system, will soon be the foundation for the authorization process at PS:1. We hope with Canvas to make authorizations both more convenient and more consistent.

With these changes and others (new Ansible playbook, new nginx, Let’s Encrypt SSL certs, etc.), we’re now getting very close to the Wild Apricot changeover. Emails will start going out soon to small groups of users. When the process is working smoothly, the entire org will change over.

A huge thanks to Abel, Wayne, Mariano, and our CTO Sky. If you’re tired of sitting on the sidelines and being overshadowed by heroes like these, bring your IT skills to the next systems group marathon. Do it for the accolades. Do it for PS:1. Do it for the pizza.

If you’re interested, Sky is always available on Slack in the #systemsgroup channel. She can also be reached at cto@pumpingstationone.org. Finally, Sky has a frequently updated and public Trello board for all IT systems stuff that you can check out here if you want to know what needs to get done and what is being worked on.

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Upcoming factory tour: Horween Leather

Update: the first tour is happening on June 12 at 11am. The tour is limited to 8 people and already has a waiting list, but Nick Horween has offered to conduct additional tours, so please feel free to add your name to the list.


Based on the enthusiastic response to the idea of factory tours, I have reached out to a number of local businesses. It looks like the first tour is going to be with Horween Leather.

Many of you have probably seen their building at the intersection of Elston and Ashland. Horween was founded in 1905, and continues to blend handmade craftsmanship with modern techniques:

Horween Leather offers an unparalleled blend of quality, consistency, responsiveness, and innovation. Through the years, we have cultivated our experience to offer dynamic lines of leathers. Our products include traditional, old world tannages and techniques, carefully updated with modern applications. Today, our leathers are still made by hand, the same way as generations ago.

Horween’s product lines range from sports leathers (footballs and baseball gloves) to high-end footwear and other applications.

If you are interested in touring Horween, please register here.

Some things to note:

  • We don’t have a time of day, day of week, or date for the tour yet. Of course we will try to arrange a time that works best for the greatest number of people, but no guarantees are possible.
  • The number of people who can attend is limited, and participants will be chosen by random lottery.
  • Reminder: if there are other places you would like to tour — and especially if you have any connections — please get in touch!
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Wanted: help planning PS:1’s future location and, well, future

One of the tricky things in a volunteer-run organization is planning for the long-term. Positions turn over frequently, and it can be a challenge to develop institutional memory or focus on issues that play out over years.

Are you interested in helping to meet that challenge? PS:1’s building is up for sale. Although we have up to eight years left on our lease, most paths forward require action much sooner than that. We need to get our hands around this problem, and we especially need the help of volunteers who are invested in PS:1’s future and excited about making sure PS:1’s second decade is even better than its first.

At the same time, we have an opportunity to prototype a process for doing long-range planning of the kind that, so far, we mostly haven’t had much experience with.

To these ends, we are convening a Planning Working Group. Read more on the concept here.

Better yet, let us know if you are potentially interested in participating. Send an email to board@pumpingstationone.org and write a sentence or two on the following:

  1. Why you are interested in joining the Planning Working Group.
  2. How much time you think you can realistically commit.
  3. Any relevant skills or knowledge you bring (none required, but if you have any, we’d love to hear about it).
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Factory tours! Who’s interested?

On my list of “things to make happen at PS:1” is arranging factory tours to give members an up-close look at how things are made at industrial scale. The maker movement is about putting the tools of production in the hands of individuals, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate or draw inspiration from the pros. Chicagoland has a rich industrial past and present. And a lot of this stuff is just plain cool.

I was reminded of this idea when I took a recent tour of a factory in South Chicago (more on that below). So consider this a call for interest and also a call for ideas. Does anyone know of any businesses, or even types of businesses, they would like to see the inside of? I’m happy to make cold calls, but of course if you have any contacts, all the better. Email me at press@pumpingstationone.org.


And here’s a quick photo essay on my recent tour. I’m not going to identify the company, or even the industry, but suffice to say it’s an old-school family business that has been manufacturing products in America for almost 100 years.

Although the factory mainly relies on CNC machines, vacuum formers, and water jets these days, it also keeps around a 120-year-old sewing machine for certain specialized jobs:

The nail-sized needle can punch through almost anything, and the machine ain’t broke, so…

There are a few other pieces of antique equipment still in use, like this cutter. It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but there are some nice hand-painted designs on the blade (click for a close-up):

This cutter is a little less antique, but no less pretty:

Foam is sold in massive blocks called “buns” because of the way they rise like loaves of bread when formed. Apparently you don’t want to be around to smell this process.

Buns are cut to size on massive vertical and horizontal bandsaws, in a process known as skiving. Skiving is a precision operation that results in thin, even slices:

The roller that feeds the foam into the blade can be replaced by “convoluter” dies, which come in a number of different patterns. Ever wonder how egg crate foam is made? This is how:

The dies squeeze the foam as it passes over the blade, creating the familiar dimpled effect:

Once cut to size, foam can be cut into more specific shapes using a 350-ton press. Notice the razor-edged patterns set into the wooden board. I thought I misheard when the press was described to me. Wouldn’t 350 pounds be about enough for cutting squishy foam? Nope, a clean cut requires a lot of force.

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Replacing the member management system: help wanted

Big news: in the coming weeks PS:1 will move to a new member management system as part of ongoing efforts to revitalize some of our digital systems and infrastructure.

Details below, but here are some of the key points:

  • This will affect everyone, as people will have to move over to a new (better) payment system. Detailed instructions coming soon.
  • The new system will bring a number of advantages, including a more automated onboarding process; access to our new learning management system; an RFID-based  entry system to the building (no more PIN codes); better data security; and a system that is better able to handle future member growth.

We are switching to a new commercial system called Wild Apricot to manage members. At the same we are switching over to a payment processor called Stripe, which is very similar to Paypal except for the part about sucking the life out of anyone who touches it.

On to the details, including ways that you can help (please!).

What are we doing?

We are implementing a completely new Active Directory (AD) infrastructure to support the Windows systems in the space, which effectively requires rebuilding many of the critical systems that power space resources. AD will offer a robust and reliable infrastructure, while retaining the ability to use open source software where applicable for space operations. AD will be the primary source of authentication for almost all services. This includes access to space computers, RFID, the Canvas learning management system, and any future software systems.

How can you help?

We’re looking for members to help build up documentation and assist in overall maintenance of these systems. We’ll also need help with switching computers over to the new system and transferring member data and authorization, which is a manual process.

There are no prerequisites for volunteering to help other than an enthusiasm for computers. We are also looking for fresh ideas and helpful software beyond the list below, so if you have any ideas, please do reach out!

In addition, experience with the following systems would be helpful:

  • Active Directory / Windows Administration
  • Azure Administration
  • ESXi / vCenter
  • WildApricot / Member management systems
  • Database applications
  • Open Source Software (not limited to)
  • NGINX
  • Ansible (& other IT automation infrastructure)
  • MediaWiki
  • WordPress
  • OpenVPN
  • RFID systems

Whether or not you have experience in any of the above, if you are interested in learning more about our systems, feel free to attend systems group meetings. These will be regularly scheduled and posted to the Google Calendar moving forward. These will mostly be weekend sessions devoting a couple of hours to building new infrastructure, brainstorming, and occasioally stabilizing old infrastructure.

We also need help with documentation. Assisting with documentation is an excellent way to become intimately familiar with our systems, and to ensure PS:1’s digital continuity.

Timeline

The upgrade and maintenance process is ongoing (with no end in sight…sad face). We are first going to enable the new system for all new and incoming members. Then we will transfer current memberships to the new system. More details soon.

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