In the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” anytime a crew member needed something that wasn’t available, a machine on board would whip it up, pronto.
A digital fabrication laboratory, or fab lab, was dedicated Monday at University of Wisconsin-Stout with the assertion that the “Star Trek” future may be nearer than most people think.
“The ‘Star Trek’ replicator really is what we are after,” said Sherry Lassiter, program manager for the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lassiter was describing the fab lab established by the Discovery Center, UW-Stout’s umbrella organization for applied research, outreach and economic development, with the assistance of a multiyear $520,000 Growth Agenda award from the UW System.
Fab labs were introduced more than a decade ago by the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. Fab labs offer users computer-controlled machines and equipment that employ many types of materials to create a wide range of products. They are connected across the globe by a communications network that allows users to share files and other ideas for the products they want to make.
Lassiter said fab labs have been used to produce, for example, a complete solar house in Europe.
Fab labs will play an increasingly important role in education, she said, by ensuring students graduate with the job skills they need for high-tech work. “This is a beautiful environment to develop that kind of workforce,” Lassiter said.
Lassiter added that the number of fab labs, currently 150 across the globe, is projected to double in less than two years.
Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms, said fab labs are part of the effort to develop the capability to “build from the atoms on up” to “create complete functional products.”
Manufacturers are having a hard time finding students with the skills they need and fab labs can be an important part of developing that workforce, Gershenfeld said.
UW-Stout joined MIT’s global network in 2005 as part of a multi-institution research project; the new Discovery Center Fab Lab is expected to bring more global collaboration opportunities to UW-Stout.
Fab labs stress cooperation among users interested in making similar products, said Randy Hulke, Discovery Center director. Computer files to make a certain item are open to anyone to use or alter, at their discretion.
Equipment in the fab lab, which occupies about 6,000 square feet in the Applied Arts Building, includes:
• A minimill that can machine solid materials such as wood, plaster and resin
• A vinyl cutter that can create professional-grade graphics and signs
• A laser engraver that can cut and engrave on wood, acrylic, glass, plastic, stone, fabric, etc.
• A router to cut wood or plastic
• A 3D printer to allow rapid prototyping and manufacturing using resins that are layered on top of each other to create an item
UW-Stout officials say the Discovery Center is working with faculty and staff across campus to involve students in the fab lab. The fab lab also is expected to be a resource for school districts in the region by working to develop curriculum to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in K-12 schools.
For more information go to the Discovery Center Fab Lab Web page.
The other fab labs in Wisconsin area at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton; Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh; and Stoughton High School.