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Big ideas on a small scale
Area’s new Fab Lab is spark for creativity and innovation
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Matthew Wade, coordinator of the Fab Lab at the Artisan Center in uptown Martinsville, shows one of the two 3-D printers in the lab. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
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Sunday, December 22, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

“Fostering new ideas, creativity and innovation — that’s what this place is all about,” Matthew Stuart Wade said of the Fab Lab at the Artisan Center in Martinsville.

Wade is the Fab Lab coordinator. The 1,600-square-foot lab is an initiative of Patrick Henry Community College in partnership with the New College Institute and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.

In general terms, a fab lab, an abbreviation for fabrication laboratory, is a small-scale workshop with an array of computer-controlled tools that enable users to research, design and create products tailored to local or personal needs in ways that are not practical or economical using mass production, according to online information, Wade and information he provided.

This fab lab is one of more than 30 in the United States, and the first in Virginia, that are part of a global network of field fab labs managed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), according to the network’s website and Wade.

Being part of the network means meeting Fab Lab charter rules, having certain equipment and participating in Fab Lab Network activities. It provides opportunities for education, sharing of ideas and information, as well as operational, technical, financial and logistical assistance, according to Wade and CBA.

This fab lab has 10 design stations; a small 3-D printer and a commercial 3-D printer; a vinyl cutter; a plastic injection molding machine; a vacuum forming machine; a computer numerically controlled (CNC) laser; a CNC router; a mini mill; and work tables.

The vinyl cutter “cuts vinyl for signage, templates and stencils. It can cut copper substrate to create flexible circuits,” according to information from Wade.

The mini mill will shape parts from modeling foam, polyurethane foam boards and other plastics. “The mill can cut copper plated blanks from digital files to create printed circuit boards or molds for products and prototypes,” according to the information.

The 3-D printer, among other things, lays down layers of plastic and fuses them with heat. Industry uses include “prototyping, one off tools” (one-off referring to a single product that is custom designed or created for a customer one at a time), according to information from Wade and online.

“The vacuum former heats a sheet of plastic, ... then wraps that plastic around a positive mold with vacuum pressure. Industry uses: packaging, car parts, boat parts, aerospace, parts from sheets of plastic,” according to Wade’s information.

The laser cuts or etches designs directly into materials such as wood, plastic, rubber, silicone, metal and glass.

The router cuts three-dimensional or two-dimensional shapes out of various materials by carving away the unnecessary materials.

CNC Plasma cutter table uses plasma and air pressure to cut through metal sheets. It creates flat patterns to make up three-dimensional structures or cuts out two-dimensional shapes.

The plastic injection molding machine heats “plastic pellets to a melting point, then uses pressure to fill in the cavity in the mold with molten plastic. ... Industry use is anything from LEGOs to phone parts to car parts,” according to information Wade provided.

Among the items Wade showed that had been made in the fab lab were plastic arrowheads 3-D printed from scanned artifacts of the Virginia Museum of Natural History; a prototype for a small metal statue; and designs etched into various materials, such as wood. The Fab Lab also has 3-D printed a prototype part for Arrington Performance that has been tested and passed in a running engine environment.

According to information from CBA, a fab lab “is a group of off-the shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, wrapped in open source software and programs written by researchers at (CBA).”

“A fab lab can give its users around the world the ability to locally conceptualize, design, develop, fabricate and test almost anything — for example, a fab lab puts communication technologies within reach of almost anyone, anywhere,” it added.

“Fab Labs are a community based, globally networked resource to foster new ideas,” Wade said in an email. “The Fab Lab is a local hub for future technological innovations. These innovations may start here in Martinsville-Henry County but could end up a global success.”

Wade said the local fab lab can be used by local entrepreneurs and businesses. It will be available for use by public school students for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities or other personal interests; and also will be available to students at New College Institute and PHCC.

It will be available to the public for such things as personal fabrication, Wade said.

“...The goal of personal fabrication is not to make what you can buy in stores but to make what you cannot buy,” Neil Gershenfeld, director of CBA, wrote in an article.

“If you want to make just one of something, it is not economical for a person to pay a manufacturing firm to develop a product from ideas to final model. When someone wants to fabricate an idea just for themselves, they can design, prototype, test and create a final product form in the Fab Lab,” Wade said. “Fab Labs bring this mass production to our back door for a one off product. Mass production does not fit everyone’s needs. If you look at the markets in the past few years, they have been manufacturing mass produced items with a little bit of customization. Fab Labs provide more customization of a person’s idea versus customization of someone else’s idea.”

Businesses and entrepreneurs can take the Fab Lab class and then become members, or the lab can provide 3-D printing services, prototyping services and industrial design services for them, he said.

“Students will be taught first how to utilize software to design their project, then take that digital file and set up a machine to manufacture a product from that file. Every student will be taught safety techniques on all of the Fab Lab equipment. Businesses and students will learn the same basic curriculum,” he added.

“We are in the process of inputting the classes for the Fab Lab into our system,” Wade said.

“Everyone must take a class to learn how to use the software and equipment safely in order to become a member of the Fab Lab. Once a member, the person may be able to reserve the machines in the Fab Lab to fabricate a product.”


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