I’ve never really liked the phrase “all good things must come to an end.” I don’t always find it necessarily true, though I’m sure I can be proven wrong. Unfortunately, in this case, I was – the great experiment that was Dayton, Ohio’s own 3D printing bar and electronics makerspace, Proto BuildBar, has sadly come to an end. I was on site at Proto on the afternoon of December 21st to witness its final hour of business, and to speak with General Manager Alex Todd about what happened and what’s coming next.
Proto first opened its doors back in 2014. Located in the heart of downtown Dayton, near the city’s Class A minor league baseball field and offering a convenient and free parking lot, the unique business was part electronics and 3D printing makerspace and part cafe/bar. Boasting a fitting slogan of “Print, Drink, Make,” Proto was developed and owned by Chris Wire of the Real Art digital and physical creative agency, located right next door.
“Real Art combines the never-before-seen with the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that. Blending art and invention, we get people to discover and remember you,” the agency’s website states.
Proto was always about more than just 3D printing, and Real Art created two of Proto’s most unique offerings: the world’s largest functional claw machine and the “War of Currents” game, which premiered at SXSW in 2016 and calls to mind Mortal Kombat, but with battles between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison and joysticks that will actually shock you.
My first visit to Proto occurred in early 2015; when former 3DPrint.com editor-in-chief Sarah Goehrke and I ventured out to see what the place had to offer, and it certainly did not disappoint. There was a whole wall of 3D printers (mostly Makerbot), and bins full of little 3D printed figurines and cookie cutters, for those who didn’t feel like waiting for their own print.
Several gumball machines also provided tiny 3D printed offerings, and multiple soldering stations lined the wall across from the printers, next to shelves filled with the necessary items from Arduino and Raspberry Pi for makers who wanted their 3D printed creations to light up or move around.
Two different areas provided comfortable seating for people who were waiting for prints to finish or who just wanted to enjoy a good cup of coffee; while Proto did have the word ‘bar’ in its name, it offered non-alcoholic beverages as well, in addition to sandwiches, cookies, and soda.
There was a large table in the middle of Proto where people could set up their laptops and get some work done. As things progressed, and the word started to get out about this interesting venue, the table was also used for special events, such as Proto’s popular Board Game and Video Game Nights, and even fundraising parties, like the Kickstarter campaign launch party that Proto hosted for the Gem City Catfé back in 2017.
While in attendance at that event, I learned that Proto was working to make good on its 2015 promise of national expansion, and was also expanding its own offerings. In addition to a dedicated event space in the back, the buildbar also provided several assembly kits, additional games for in-house parties, and was working on putting together team-building exercises and STEM-related classes for young people.
“Being a makerspace specifically targeting beginners, we have a lot of kids and adults that are just starting to figure out the capabilities of the technology,” Todd told me last year when I was writing a piece about today’s 3D printed toy market.
“Whether it’s putting a child’s name on a action figure, or printing a custom Catan board, these items help create a real understanding that with a little brain power and creativity, you can use a printer to create almost anything you can dream.”
With all of this focus on the younger generation of makers, as well as actively working towards an expansion, why exactly did Proto BuildBar close its doors last month, shortly after celebrating its fifth anniversary? Did the business try to grow too quickly and buckle under the stress? The answer may surprise you, as it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with 3D printing.
“It’s more about what’s happening in this area in Dayton than the concept of Proto,” Todd told me when I stopped in to pay my respects on the last official day of business.
He explained that while Proto itself is “an amazing concept,” it is “more suited to a suburban area,” especially with the number of families who patronize the buildbar. Even with more adult-themed events like Couples Soldering Nights, Todd told us back in 2015 that its main demographic was proving to be fathers coming in with their children. As I live fairly close to downtown Dayton, I have visited Proto a number of times over the last few years, and did in fact notice many young families frequenting the business.
They say that location is everything, and what’s happening in Proto’s location is a lot of new housing being developed and built nearby. So from a small business perspective, Proto BuildBar owners Real Art need to take advantage of what’s happening in the area…which sadly is not unique 3D printing makerspace bars.
I asked Todd what was next for Proto, and if it would reinvent itself somewhere new, and what would be happening in the current building. As I suspected, he was not allowed to say publicly at that point, but told me to keep an eye out for news in the future.
“There will be something equally as awesome in this space at some point,” Todd told me. “Real Art owns the building. The whole back half of this building is Thought Lab, this is where they build all the cool stuff,” he continued, referencing the agency’s many interesting projects.
Even though the staff is working hard to empty the building quickly, Todd told me that there was “no set timeframe” for when another business would move into the Proto space. I asked why Proto was closing at 3 pm on its final day of business, rather than staying open until at least the early evening hours.
“We had our big party last night,” Todd told me. “It was bananas. The reason we went with 3 o’clock was because I didn’t want to open the bar tonight and not have a lot of alcohol to sell.”
While I wish I had been able to attend that final party, it was also nice to have a quiet space to chat with my husband and our friend and have one last drink. At the same time, it was fairly depressing to see all of the blank areas where the many 3D printers used to sit, and watch the employees tear things down and cover the windows up.
Proto is selling everything – furniture, coffee mugs, espresso machine, and all of its 3D printers. So I’m guessing whatever Real Art ends up bringing to the building next won’t be related to 3D printing. But maybe the agency will bring Proto back on a larger scale, with more current printers, somewhere else. Hopefully this isn’t just wishful thinking on my part; we have been looking into the unmaking of the maker movement these days, after all. But knowing what I know about the housing growth of this particular downtown location, I understand why the concept might work better somewhere else, and why this closure likely doesn’t have anything to do with the technology itself.
Dayton went through the ringer in 2019, but the home of the Wright Brothers is nothing if not resilient. Proto BuildBar is a Dayton original, so if the business makes some sort of comeback, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the comments below.[Photos taken by Sarah Saunders for 3DPrint.com]
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