It’s been months in the making but two new Fab Labs are expected to open later this year in Northwest Arkansas. The ventures are designed to help entrepreneurs get the resources they need to take their ideas to commercialization.
The resources will be within the confines of the 5,000-square-foot Fab Lab in downtown Fayetteville and a similar facility planned on the NorthWest Arkansas Community College campus in Bentonville. The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce plans to open its 5,000 square-foot Fab Lab by Aug. 1, in the Bradsberry Building at 21 W. Mountain St., where the Chamber offices relocated to earlier this year.
“The focus of the Fab Lab will be on digital fabrication,” said Steve Clark, president of the Chamber. “This is the place where the problem solver and the dreamer come together.”
Clark recently attended a symposium last week at Northwest Arkansas Community College, conducted by the U.S. Fab Lab Network, which is the umbrella for Fab labs in some 27 states. The focus of the recent symposium was fabrication and entrepreneurship.
He said the Fayetteville lab will be linked to the national network to better help entrepreneurs find the expertise they need. He said with the Fab Lab the Chamber hopes to close a gap in what is becoming known as the “Innovation District” around the Fayetteville Square.
The Fayetteville Chamber acquired the space for $2.4 million last year. The chamber occupies the second floor while the Fab Lab is on the ground floor. When opened, the ground floor space will be similar to the Launch Pad space in the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, with technology for entrepreneurs to include 3D printers, CNC routers (computer controlled cutting machines), circular saws, and vinyl cutters.
The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub and the Fayetteville Chamber formed a partnership last June to develop a Fab Lab. Future plans also include an entrepreneurial co-working and incubation space, local versions of a STEAM Lab classroom, and an Art Connection program, similar to those hosted by the Regional Hub in North Little Rock.
While several Northwest Arkansas high schools have similar training areas for coding, and other specific skills for their students, the Fayetteville Fab Lab will be open to the public.
“Ours is a regional lab for all of Northwest Arkansas. It can be used by anyone,” Clark said. “Digital fabrication is to the assembly line what the (computer) chip was 20 years ago. It’s the last component in the innovation ecosystem that is on all four sides of the square.”
In addition to the Fab Lab, Clark said the Chamber is also working to open a new Robotics Lab in its former location at down the street. This will be a 5,000 square foot venue where employers and schools can collaborate on the required training needed in manufacturing industry today.
Brett Amerine, chief operating officer for Startup Junkie Consulting, said the company began by his parents, Jeff and Phyl Amerine, along with Community Venture Foundation, comprise the NWA Venture Team, which leads and supports much of what is going on in the region in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation across the region.
“Our goal is to have maker spaces across all of NWA. One of those maker spaces, that Startup Junkie Consulting and Community Venture Foundation are happy to help support is the Fab Lab in Fayetteville,” Amerine said.
“We are glad to now see the Fab Lab becoming part of the Innovation District,” he said. “The only component in the Innovation District that did not exist was a maker space like the new Fab Lab.”
The Innovation District includes businesses such as Startup Junkie, the Community Venture Foundation and Hayseed Ventures, all of which have been joined by Metova, SimplyMeasured, Explainify, EquityNet, Elevate Forums and OverDrive Brands, all situated around the Fayetteville Square.
“The Fab Lab will complement the world class entrepreneurial and STEM programs, events, and workshops that the NWA Venture Team and Hayseed Ventures already lead,” Amerine said.
A similar lab is in development at Northwest Arkansas Community College, targeted to open later this year, said Tim Cornelius, vice president of career and workforce development. This Fab Lab is a work in progress, Cornelius said.
“We have some pieces of equipment but we are not ready to open. We hope to bring it to fruition in a few months.”
Besides the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, the closest functioning Fab Lab is Hardesty Center for Fab Lab in Tulsa, near the University of Tulsa. Nathan Pritchett, executive director, said the lab offers 10 different workstations for its 389 members.
“We attract a large spectrum of people, men and women of all ages,” Pritchett said.
That includes about 4,700 elementary students in fourth through ninth grades that visited the Fab Lab last year.