AMS Spring 2023

Inside Proto BuildBar: We Make the Makers

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proto-buildI am a proud, lifelong resident of southwest Ohio – I grew up roughly 15 minutes south of Dayton, which is known as the Gem City and is the sixth-largest city in the state, and now I live about six minutes away from downtown. It doesn’t sit well with me when I hear people say that there isn’t anything to do in Dayton, or that it’s a “dying city” (still looking at you, Forbes). It’s just not true – there’s a lot going on in Dayton! I follow a lot of local businesses on Facebook, and I learned recently that Dayton would soon be getting a cat café, aptly named the Gem City Catfé. Being a cat-lover and owner myself, I’ve been eagerly following the social media updates, and was extremely excited to see that Dayton’s resident 3D printing bar, Proto BuildBar, would be hosting an evening party for the Catfé’s Kickstarter campaign launch.

Tom Mitchell

Tom Mitchell

It’s been a couple of years since we last checked in with Proto BuildBar, so I was grateful for the opportunity to not only attend the Catfé Kickstarter party, but also to speak with Tom Mitchell, essentially Proto BuildBar’s operations manager, though he is quick to say that he doesn’t really have a title.

proto-shirts-and-catsI need to say right off the bat that I truly believe Tom’s enthusiasm could power the entire island of Manhattan for months. He’s been at Proto BuildBar, which currently employs a staff of eight people, for about seven months, and we quickly went over what had changed since the doors opened in late 2014. In addition to its bevy of MakerBot 3D printers (ranging from the Replicator Mini to a Replicator Z18), Ultimaker 2, and M3D 3D printer, Proto BuildBar has also added a LulzBot TAZ 5 from Aleph Objects and a Flashforge Creator Pro.

proto-build-creator-proTom seemed most excited about this last one, which is located near the front of the building, right in between the multiple soldering stations and a comfortable-looking lounge area. The Creator Pro is right above a shelf containing Proto Packs, which are colorful little 3D printed treasure chests filled with small gift offerings, most of which would make any D&D fan smile.

I asked Tom how they all felt about investing so heavily in MakerBot technology, given the recent shakeups the company’s had in terms of upper management and changing its focus from the consumer to the professional and educational. He didn’t seem to regret the decision to go mostly with MakerBot, and told me that aside from needing to upgrade the MakerBot Replicator 2X soon, and having fried a chip on one printer’s motherboard twice, they haven’t really had many issues with the technology.


“They’re really workhorses, you know,” Tom said of the MakerBot 3D printers.

Moving on from its 3D printers, Tom also said that Proto BuildBar has “picked up some assembly kits,” including the Konstruktor, Lomography’s make-your-own 35mm SLR camera kit, a Rule Your Room Kit by littleBits, the Pick-a-Palooza, which teaches you how to make guitar picks from things like old credit cards, and a Holy Stone Predator drone. Proto BuildBar now also has a dedicated event space in the back, which has been used for everything from business meetings to birthday parties; the birthday person is 3D scanned and then gets to see their bust 3D printed!

Party guests also participate in bracket challenges with the War of Currents video game, which is reminiscent of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, except in this case, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison battle it out…and the joysticks will literally shock you! The game was designed for South by Southwest by Real Art Design Group, located right next to Proto BuildBar; both are owned by Chris Wire. Tom showed me some of the other games he’s created for Proto BuildBar, including a light-up roulette game he made for Proto BuildBar’s New Year’s Eve Party, and a derby race game. He 3D printed two guns that are copies of the one Marvin the Martian has on Looney Tunes, and equipped each one with a laser pointer, which players then aim at their targets to make Tesla and Edison race to the top, past their various patents. I also had an opportunity to play the giant claw machine, though sadly I did not win.

What I brought home from Proto BuildBar

What I brought home from Proto BuildBar

Back in 2015, general manager Alex Todd (who is no longer with Proto BuildBar) told that the plan was to expand, and open up ten more locations by 2017. I asked Tom how that was coming, and he said that he was actually brought in “specifically to build the brand.”

“We see Proto BuildBar as a lifestyle brand,” he explained, noting that it’s not really a makerspace in the true sense of the word. “We make the makers here, by empowering people to tackle things on their own.”

pbb7He will be revamping the website soon, and said that Proto BuildBar has also been focusing on working with groups of students, hosting Girl Scout groups, holding Math and Minecraft classes for kids, and planning STEM-related summer camps, which will be divided up by age and tasks, like Tinkercad, 3D printing, basic electronics, and robotics. Proto BuildBar has also been demonstrating and teaching at events like TechFest, the upcoming Springboro STEMfest, and next weekend’s Big Hoopla STEM Challenge with Chaminade-Julienne High School, coinciding with the start of the NCAA basketball tournament. Tom also explained that Proto BuildBar has been “really getting into team-building.”

“These are really valuable resources for businesses, and we have the right pieces of technology to make them uncomfortable,” Tom said.

He went on to explain that people can’t learn and innovate without learning to work together on projects that could be considered ‘uncomfortable’ for most, like building small rocket launchers that can shoot Ping Pong balls or following plans to 3D print a missing puzzle piece. I find the concept extremely intriguing, and I absolutely agree with his reasoning. Also, team-building exercises with places like Proto BuildBar can teach people that technology is truly for everyone. Tom has some really interesting corporate team-building ideas that he’s pitched, and though no one has taken him up on the new ideas yet, I hope someone does soon.

gem-city-catfe-3d-printed-logoBy the time we finished speaking, the Gem City Catfé Kickstarter launch party was about to begin. Tom said that the Catfé approached Proto BuildBar to hold the event, and he said Proto BuildBar was more than happy to oblige.

“We want to support the community,” he explained. “They’re kind of unique, like us.”

Speaking of supporting the community, Tom, and Gem City Catfé COO (that’s Cat Operating Officer, obviously) Sabrina Cox were proud to tell me that both businesses only use other local businesses for food and beverage offerings. Dayton has a long history of being a place where innovation is born (the Wright Brothers, NCR, etc.), and really values its innovators and community partners.

3d-printed-cat-ring“If you’re in Dayton, you know Proto exists,” Sabrina told me when I asked why the Catfé wanted to hold its event there. “If you can build 3D cat stuff, why wouldn’t you?”

10% of cat-themed 3D prints made at Proto BuildBar last night were donated to the Catfé’s Kickstarter campaign, and there were also fun cocktails on hand, like a Meow-Jito. By around 10:30 last night, the Catfé was almost to the halfway point of its goal, thanks to Proto BuildBar and the Catfé’s daytime Kickstarter launch at Boston Stoker coffee in downtown Dayton. There were lots 3D printed cat items on display and being printed, from adorable cat rings to a Black Cat Self Defense Keychain, 3D printed cat figurines, and even 3D printed cat ears!

Tom also took the time to teach me how to solder, using Proto BuildBar’s free skull pin soldering kits. The back of the skull is super encouraging, with a note at the top that says, “Congrats! You made something awesome!” We’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now – if you can get to Proto BuildBar, do it. You can check out some more photos from my visit to Proto BuildBar below. Discuss in the Proto BuildBar forum at

[All photos: Sarah Saunders for]


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