A Community of Innovators
Minnesota Entrepreneur Encourages Creativity in His Hometown Via Manufacturing Makerspace
Growing up in a mining town in northeastern Minnesota, Andrew Hanegmon turned to the mining industry as he left high school. He worked for a company in Hibbing, MN, breaking down heavy-duty mining equipment, then rebuilding and reselling the components. “It was like a normal mechanic shop, but on a larger scale,” he said.
An injury to his hands ended his mining career, but made him take stock of the physical toll that line of work was having on his body. “I had worked my body to the limit,” Hanegmon said. “I realized that was not the career for me. I wanted to use my brain more.”
Fascinated with mechanics, engineering seemed to be the perfect career path, so Hanegmon enrolled in classes at the local community college. However, he was dissatisfied with the limited hands-on learning. He considered dropping out. His mother, a 30-year workforce education employee with the State of Minnesota, guided him toward a program at Iron Range Engineering (IRE), a project-based, four-year accredited program at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN.
“When I came to IRE, I met a group of people who were using their brains every day,” Hanegmon said. “They were being productive. They were coming together and, regardless of background, working on some of the coolest stuff I’d ever seen. It was a community of innovators. I didn't even know that existed.”
It was this exposure to collaboration and idea exchange that led Hanegmon to start Iron Range Makerspace (IRM), a space in Hibbing where people in the community can indulge their creative side. For $40 a month, members have access to assets and equipment, such as welding booths, lasers and 3D printers, a wood shop, blacksmithing area, CNC plasma cutter and automotive lift. The 12,000-sq.ft. building also includes a full workout gym, commercial kitchen, coffee bar and retail area where members sell their items.
“If you're a creative person, you now have the resources to enhance your creativity, to let it thrive in a way that you never could before,” he said. “We have essentially given them a bigger box to think in. If all you have is a hacksaw, you're going to think in terms of a hacksaw. But if you have access to everything you've ever dreamed of, your box is now much bigger. We have increased the potential of that human being.”
Before creating the makerspace, Hanegmon worked at Detroit Reman, a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America, which remanufactures semi-truck electronics. It gave him his first chance to apply what he had learned about lean principles at IRE.
At IRM, Hanegmon put his own twist to those principles—work tables are in the center of the space to encourage conversation between members. “We want to manufacture ideas and interactions,” he explained. “Instead of having our machines flow perfectly, we tried to design everything to still flow well but also to facilitate interactions.”
The 28-year-old has big dreams for the creative entrepreneurs in his community, as well as those across the country.
“If you gave every town a makerspace with access to resources at an insanely reasonable rate, not everybody would take advantage,” he said. “However, for the ones who do, you have now quadrupled their potential for impacting the future.”
His biggest surprise while working in manufacturing? The incredible amount of talent in the labor force.
“At Detroit Reman, I had employees who did not know how talented they were,” he said. “What I see at IRM is the best of manufacturing because you see people working together to solve problems. I believe that is where we are going in the manufacturing world, even if we automate everything. There will always be a position available for somebody who can problem-solve, be self-directed and find ways to improve things.”
Hanegmon believes the makerspace model is just what the manufacturing industry needs to get young people interested in manufacturing careers—it gives them the opportunity to work with their hands and see what they can create.
“If young people were exposed to something like that, it could change their path,” he said. “They'd have somewhere to go if things aren't right at home or at school. Creative thought doesn’t work on a schedule. You need an outlet. It is what inspired me to start IRM. I believe that when you put together creative people with many different backgrounds, there's no way to stop innovation from happening.”