“It’s a place where people can share their ideas and build almost anything,” said Ken Smith, research associate for the UW-Stout Discovery Center.
The center, UW-Stout’s umbrella organization for applied research, outreach and economic development, has established a digital fabrication laboratory, or fab lab, 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Bits and Atoms. Fab labs offer users a variety of computer-controlled pieces of 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.
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.
“It’s a space where people come to make things using computer-controlled equipment,” said Sylvia Tiala, career and technical education assistant professor. “A fab lab also has the ability to connect other people around the world in fab lab networks.”
A formal fab lab dedication will be held Monday, Feb. 4, at the lab, 132 Applied Arts. Attending the dedication will be Sherry Lassiter of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. She will speak on “The International Fab Lab Network: A Historical and Futuristic Snapshot.”
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.
“Innovation does not happen in a vacuum,” Hulke said. “Collaboration improves the opportunity for success.”
“It is supposed to be open access for the creative community,” Tiala added.
The fabrication equipment in the fab lab 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
“It all runs off of printing technology,” said Mike Cropp, fab lab management engineer, of the software that powers the machines. “The idea is, you are using the same kind of code as a printer.”
Hulke said 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.
He also said the fab lab will be valuable for businesses and industries that want to collaborate on product prototype design and development.
“All of this equipment can be used for prototyping and for new product development,” said Larry Blackledge, director of the Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center, which is part of the Discovery Center. “It can make some things that can’t be made any other way.”
"It’s really a diverse approach for people who enjoy making things,” Smith added.
For more information go to the webpage.
The other fab labs in Wisconsin area at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton; Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh; and Stoughton High School.