Makers Pace: Digital Fabrication Scene Thriving Despite Fab Lab Lag

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In the Northwest Arkansas Community College office of Tim Cornelius, a rectangular wooden tag hangs from the bookshelf. Precisely engraved into the thin wood are the words: “FAB 11 BOSTON CAMBRIDGE & SOMERVILLE August 3-9 2015.”

For years, Cornelius has been tracking the national digital fabrication movement which originally grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and its potential to make creative manufacturing a more important part of America’s startup culture.

NWACC’s vice president of career and workforce education enthuses about ideas gleaned from the “FAB 11” conference where he got this keepsake, but as he slowly rotated it in his hands on a recent weekday afternoon, he seemed most excited about the prospects which the movement holds for Northwest Arkansas.

The conference tag, he noted, is essentially a high-quality, artistic 3D business card. He believes there is a largely untapped local market for such business cards. An aspiring entrepreneur could get business converting current 2D designs to 3D versions by using an Epilog engraving laser, he said.

Granted, there are obstacles to entry. These machines often cost well over $10,000, and it would take design know-how to produce the initial 3D blueprints.

That’s where his plans for an NWACC “Fab Lab” step in. These labs, part of an international network charted by MIT, serve as prototyping areas and learning stations for the general public. For the price of memberships often costing $100 to $150 a month, local residents can access a tool room filled with common digital fabrication devices: laser engravers, vinyl cutters, 3D printers, CNC routers (computer controlled cutting machines) and CNC milling machines. They are a kind of “maker space,” a more comprehensive term for physical spaces dedicated to digital fabrication.

For months Cornelius has been plotting the 1,000-SF area in two bays at the front of the Shewmaker Center for Global Business Development. He envisions accelerating a more entrepreneurial climate in Northwest Arkansas by allowing NWACC students taking advanced manufacturing classes to take their prototypes to the next level while building connections with local retailers and suppliers.


A Pause in Planning

In essence, it’s a two-part dream. Overall, the area’s startup climate is coming along just fine. But, for now, Cornelius’ Fab Lab dream appears to be in a brief hiatus.

One reason: Rapid growth in currently established NWACC workforce development programs means the bays are not yet cleared. “We have to move a big piece of equipment and do some electrical work. Then we’ll start in earnest putting the grant [applications] together,” Cornelius said. 

Another big factor is Cornelius’ availability. After a departure elsewhere within the school, he recently assumed an extra job: interim director duties of NWACC’s health professions division.

Months ago, before the influx of new duties, Cornelius was optimistic he could find funding and launch this Fab Lab in late summer. Now, though, as he unexpectedly juggles two jobs, a 2016 launch appears to be out of the question. Cornelius said the earliest a new head division director would be hired is “hopefully in January.”

Getting a Fab Lab off the ground can take anywhere from a few months to seven or more years. On the short side of that spectrum is the year-and-a-half-old Fab Lab in Independence, Kansas. Securing the financing, machines and space for this Independence Community College offshoot took about seven months, according to ICC Fab Lab director Jim Correll.

Correll credits a $65,000 donation from a local entrepreneur and a $50,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation out of Kansas City. In all, he had to raise about $125,000 to $130,000 to buy new equipment including a plasma cutter, multi-function copier and ceramic kiln.  He also helped get an $80,000 grant to put a solar array power system on an ICC building.

The Fab Lab takes up about 2,000 SF on campus, and Correll estimates it annually costs about $12,000 in utilities. The salary of two full-time employees totals $85,000.

His Fab Lab, based in a town of nearly 10,000 people, has so far received about 6,000 visits including touring school children. Its $100-per-year memberships cover materials and supplies. At any given time, Correll estimates there are “three to five” artisans and the same number of entrepreneurs working on a product. The entrepreneurs must pay a little extra for machine use and supplies when they go beyond making one-off prototypes of their product and begin making small-batch runs.

Wichita resident Tim Voegeli, who runs a business building tools for tubeless bicycles, recently became Correll’s first member to launch a full line of products into market. “Five years ago, it probably would have cost that guy $20,000 and a year to make his prototypes,” Correll said. “Now, it’s $1,000 and five weeks.”


Vision Coming to Fruition

Correll, who often swaps ideas with Cornelius, believes there is high potential for digital fabrication movements in Northwest Arkansas. Both men believe the region has all the ingredients for a thriving scene, with strong cooperation between private and public sectors in multiple areas including all levels of education.

Cornelius’ larger vision of seeing “maker spaces” thrive is coming to fruition even as the NWACC Fab Lab is somewhat on the backburner. At least three other local organizations have or will soon directly foster sustainable growth in this sector. The oldest is the Idea Factory of NWA, a 198-member volunteer group of enthusiasts and hobbyists who own some of the same digital fabrication machines found in Fab Labs. For a half a decade, they have helped provide entrepreneurs with an informal support structure for the prototyping and preproduction phase of their product development.

Last summer, when the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville opened, it unveiled a “tinkerer’s hub” — a room dedicated to children 7 years and older a place to develop skills that fuse technology and creativity through an array of recycled goods, traditional arts supplies, manual tools, editing software, high-tech machinery and micro controllers like Arduino. Whereas Fab Labs are maker spaces typically reserved for adults and more business pursuits, the Amazeum’s 3M Tinkering Hub is a maker space geared toward fostering creativity in children and their families.

In the coming months, the Amazeum will offer more classes and demos for the public along these lines after hiring longtime Idea Factory leader Jason Quail as its first full-time Tinkering Initiatives Manager. Quail has brought into the museum his own 3D printer to help expand its tech outreach to the public. Additionally, the Amazeum is helping local schools launch their own maker spaces and mobile tinkering carts.

This has already begun with Bentonville’s Willowbrook Elementary and The New School in Fayetteville. “By the end of next school year, we predict we’ll be working closely with more than 10 schools in various stages of developing tinkering spaces,” Amazeum director Sam Dean said.


Innovation Ecosystem

The area’s first official Fab Lab is slated to appear on the Fayetteville square in the coming months. In August, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce plans to launch the first phase of its “Innovation Lab” with a Fab Lab component. The 5,000-SF Northwest Arkansas Innovation Hub will likely include art, design and app development classes along alongside its Fab Lab. The hub will also provide mentors and classes to support startup businesses — “a place where a likely or unlikely entrepreneur who has an idea for a business, product or service can come in and get some help,” Cornelius said.

Both Cornelius and Steve Clark, executive director of the Fayetteville chamber, believe the movement is important enough, and the demand will be high enough, for the region to sustain two Fab Labs.

Their plans entail NWACC and the chamber helping each other. The partnership will initially start through a Robotics Lab, another chamber project opening soon on the square. Instructors there will teach corporate employees in some classes, and high school and NWACC students in others. In the latter case, the students will receive robotics training certificates to help with job prospects.

Details regarding this arrangement are still hazy, as are nascent plans to form an unofficial regional “consortium” between the NWA Fab Labs, the ICC Fab Lab in Kansas and a larger one in Tulsa. The premise is simple: Fab Labs should share resources. Not all of them can afford to have all kinds of equipment, but a handful working together can cover a significant percentage.

This kind of ad hoc partnership based on equipment availability is already happening between the ICC Fab Lab and Hardesty Center for Fab Lab in Tulsa. The ICC has a plasma cutter Tulsa lacks, while Tulsa in return provides access to larger and faster 3D printers, Fab Lab Tulsa director Nathan Pritchard said.

A strong sense of regionalism pervades Cornelius’ vision for an NWACC Fab Lab. He says he’s fine it isn’t happening as quickly as originally anticipated. The delay provides time to more thoroughly plan and assess how it can best complement the NWA Innovation Hub, the local startup/artisan community and the needs of more established businesses.

Cornelius added: “What we’re doing is really more of an ecosystem — Fayetteville, the Amazeum, the schools. We’re building a really good innovation ecosystem in this area, and the Fab Lab is one part of the toolkit.” 

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