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2015 March 6 - 10:49 am

Fabricating The Future

College Fab Labs Spurring Creativity Among Students and Entrepreneurs

 

Administrators at Independence Community College had no intention of making national and international headlines when they were planning for a Fab Lab for their small rural campus in Independence, Kan.

They had more modest, traditional goals in mind: more and better space for their engineering students; a place where students and the public alike could access advanced manufacturing and digital fabrication tools; a new home for its growing entrepreneurial program, said college President Daniel W. Barwick.

But then a bit of serendipity led them to Kara Marr, a 13-year-old girl born with a congenital abnormality called symbrachydactyly in which bones are missing from the fingers or fingers are missing altogether.

Jim Correll, the college’s Fab Lab director, was chatting up his friend Wes Koschke at a birthday party last summer about his work in setting up the lab. He explained how it was going to be equipped with cutting-edge production machinery: laser-powered cutters, high-precision robotic routers and most significantly, a 3-D printer, a cuttin-edge device capable of creating threedimensional plastic parts.

It just so happened that Koschke was involved in a fund-raising drive aimed at buying a 3-D printer to build a prosthetic hand for Kara. The two men had something of a mutual epiphany: why not build the prosthesis is the college’s new lab? If you can find the plans, Correll said, you can produce it with our 3-D printer.

“It really was a coincidence,” Correll said. “But we started envisioning what we might be able to do.”

So it was that last Sept. 27 Kara was presented with a new prosthetic hand called the Cyborg Beast Hand. It was produced on a machine that cost $3,000 with $50 in materials from a design found on the Internet. It was built by Koeske, ICC students and volunteers. By comparison, a traditional prosthetic hand would have cost more than $40,000.

In the months since Kara was fitted with her hand, two children with similar conditions have also been presented with prosthetic hands.

The Manhattan Mercury, a local newspaper, reported on the ICC Fab Lab’s work.

The story was picked up by the Associated Press and read around the world, putting a spotlight on the tiny college — its enrollment is just over 1,000 students — and its Fab Lab.

“Honestly, what we are doing is just the tip of the iceberg,” Barwick said. “For a relatively small amount of money, you can shape and fabricate pieces of plastic that you simply couldn’t before.”

The college’s Fab Lab, which opened last fall, is the newest in an international network of the laboratories. They are the brainchild of MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld.

Back in the late 1990s, he envisioned them as a way to bring digital fabrication to the masses. The goal: to simplify the process of turning an idea into a product by giving students and the public access to design and manufacturing tools previously available only to engineers are big companies.

The first Fab Labs opened in remote places like Ghana and Costa Rica and other places that lacked meaningful manufacturing capacity But soon they were seen as places where economically depressed areas in America could turn to help residents reinvent themselves and develop marketable skills and capabilities.

There are now about 40 Fab Labs in the United States, including ten on community college campuses. Barwick said the colleges, with their close ties to their communities and emphasis on building local economies, are an ideal fit for Fab Labs. The Fab Lab charter, in fact, says they must be available as a community resources.

“When we started this, I thought the community component was critical,” Barwick said. “In a college setting, you can magnify what the lab has to offer. It can benefit students, the community, local high school students. There is a synergy between the mission of the college and the Fab Lab.”

The labs can help entrepreneurs make products to meet a unique need or solve a problem too small for large companies to address. For students, the benefits stem from being able see a manufacturing process from start to finish, leading to deeper learning, Barwick said.

“The act of building something gets you thinking about not only the product, but the process,” Barwick said. “It forces you to consider things that you did not before — the density of the materials, their weight. It’s not just layering plastic. It’s doing in a certain way.”

Sustaining the Fab Lab over the long haul remains a challenge, Barwick said. While the initial investment is relatively modest, more sophisticated equipment is expensive. Grants to buy equipment run out. Colleges need to find models of sustainability so the labs can have a lasting impact.

Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., believes it has found a formula for sustaining and growing its Fab Lab — guitars. It was founded in 2008 soon after Paul E. Pierpoint, the college’s vice-president for community education, read Gershenfeld’s book “FAB.”

“I thought ‘we gotta do this,’” Pierpoint said. “I saw what these labs were doing in all kinds of interesting places. I really thought we could do something like that in south Bethlehem.”

He raised enough money to buy a 3-D printer, a laser machine, a powerful router and some woodworking equipment.

The Fab Lab, located in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel’s old blast furnaces, seemed liked a great fit for Bethlehem. The once-thriving city in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley by then was an economy in transition, the steel plant long since closed. The emphasis on entrepreneurship seemed like a natural. Yet the lab’s first days were fitful. It was struggling to attract attention and people.

Then in 2011, Pierpoint hired Jeffrey Boerner, who had retired as head of a architectural woodworking company, to head of the lab’s woodworking program. Soon he pitched an idea to Pierpoint: why not start a guitar-making program as a way to create interest?

“The reason I started it was to increase traffic,” Boerner said. “It really jump-started it. There are a lot of old rockers around here as well as young kids who are interested.”

The program has proven wildly popular.

There are waiting lists of students wanting to build acoustic or electric guitars from scratch. C.F. Martin & Co., the renowned guitar-maker, whose manufacturing plant is located just a few miles away, has sent employees to the lab for training.

“It’s the intersection of advanced manufacturing and good old-fashioned artisanal skills,” Pierpoint said.

Most importantly, the guitar-making classes have provided a sustainable revenue source and given the lab a solid business model, Pierpoint said.

Today, the lab has 20 instructors and offers 56 courses. On a typical night, four classes are filled to capacity. On Saturdays, its open lab that attracts people from near and far.

Pierpoint now has bigger plans in mind. He has submitted a grant proposal that would make the Fab Lab the heart of a new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to be located in a building once occupied by Bethlehem Steel.

“We want to become an engine for new business in this area,” he said. “It would be the next step in the transition of our economy. If you can empower people instead of putting up obstacles, that’s a good thing.”

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