The future is here

November 30, 2011

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

A Mobile Fab Lab has rolled into the area, bringing innovative ideas to entrepreneurs, manufacturers, community leaders and students.

Patrick Henry Community College, New College Institute, the Harvest Foundation and the Martinsville Henry County Economic Development Corp. collaborated to bring the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) fab lab to the area for two weeks to provide hands-on experiences to schools, businesses and the community.

The 250-square-foot lab, which was created by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, features modern tools for creative digital fabrication. They include computers that run design software and production machinery with laser-powered cutters and ethers, table-top milling equipment, routers, the ShopBot and a 3D printer which produces three-dimensional plastic parts, according to a news release.

This is the fab lab’s first visit to the area. Its purpose is to introduce modern technology and useful creativity to the area, according to Rhonda Hodges, dean of work force and continuing education at PHCC.

“Innovation is critical to economic development,” said Jeff Kohler, executive director of GENEDGE Alliance, a statewide manufacturing support program based at PHCC.

“Manufacturers need to improve constantly in order to compete in today’s global environment,” he said. “At the forefront of innovation is new product development.”

With the fab lab, new products can be created quickly for new markets, he said.

There no longer is a need for large research labs. Due to the Internet, computers and other technology, new products can be developed with just a few people and a few pieces of equipment, Kohler added.

The use of the fab lab is not limited to manufacturing companies, but also to entrepreneurs who want to create something.

Drew Nelson, lab manager with Fab Lab of the Carolinas, told how a group of men in California created the prototype in a fab lab for their invention of a credit card reader that attaches to a cell phone.

The fab lab gave the men the appropriate tools to build circuit boards and to fabricate other electronics in the product. Also, with so much access to technology in one space, it saves time in developing a prototype, Nelson said.

In Sweden, a group developed a system for tracking sheep by using tools in a fab lab. The creators used the vinyl cutter to cut wireless antennas and the ShopBot to design the satellite dishes, Nelson said.

The ShopBot basically is a standard wood router mounted on a robot that moves in three dimensions to make precise items out of wood, he added.

On Tuesday morning, representatives of a furniture company visited the fab lab and were interested in the opportunities available to develop prototypes for furniture and furniture parts. The fab lab had the “potential to accelerate their product development for prototypes,” Kohler said.

There also has been a lot of interest among entrepreneurs such as graphic designers and sheet metal designers, according to Lisa Fultz, director of the Small, Minority and Entrepreneurial Division of the EDC.

A group of entrepreneurs and Magna Vista High School students enrolled in the Intro to Engineering and Design class toured the lab on Tuesday afternoon.

Today, a group of artisans from Studio 107 will view the lab, Hodges said.

The fab lab is a great tool for students because it complements schools’ focus on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines and highlights innovative career fields to students, Hodges added.

These technologies allow people to make their ideas a reality and “open up all sorts of doors” in an inexpensive way, said Jeffrey Mansour, senior program officer with the Harvest Foundation.

In addition, fab labs allow entrepreneurs, students and manufacturers to network, share design information and collaborate on product development, he said.

PHCC, NCI, EDC and the Harvest Foundation will use the fab lab tour as an opportunity to gauge whether bringing a fab lab here permanently would provide an economic boost and benefit the community as a whole, the release said.

With a permanent lab, it could help to “develop an innovative work force” starting with the student population, Kohler said.

The lab arrived Monday and will be stationed at PHCC’s J. Burness Frith Economic Development Center through Friday, Dec. 9.

The lab will be open to the public:

• From 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m. Saturday.

• From 12:30-2:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8.

• From 12:30-2:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9.


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