Fab Lab: ‘Fabulous Fabrication’
Northampton Community College’s Fab Lab in South Bethlehem will double its space and learning opportunities when NCC’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship opens in May 2018.
The initiative is being made possible by a $7 million grant to renovate the first floor of the Fowler Family Southside Center on East Third Street, where the Fab Lab will expand to half of the new space for innovation, and the remaining space will be devoted to entrepreneurship.
The nearly self-sustaining facility provides open access to state-of-the-art technologies ranging from a full metal and workshop, spray booth, 3D printers, laser cutters, to a sound lab, guitar-making and repair studio, cold casting and more. Opened in 2009, the Fab Lab supports 27 expert instructors offering 80 classes attended by several hundred students a semester.
Director Jeffrey Boerner calls Fab Lab a “prototype learning center.” From the beginning, he says he wanted the facility to be different. “Most Fab Labs aren’t as course-structured as we are. They are forced by their colleges to run courses for college credit. Our class model helps students hone their skills,” he explained, adding, “I didn’t want it to be all about digital technology. I wanted the basics – you can’t have one without the other – I want students to learn how to use a screwdriver.”
The lab’s Luthier Certification Program in electric and acoustic guitar building is an example. Students take eight required and two elective courses that include woodworking basics and finishing using hand application techniques. According to the program’s brochure, students not only learn how to build their instruments from scratch (step-by-step) using old world skills, they also are introduced to the technology incorporated in manufactured guitars.
Last year, Boerner was invited to Washington, D.C, to a meeting organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which, among many other initiatives, encourages young people to create and invent, and promotes entrepreneurship in hardware and manufacturing.
“It’s a true honor to be invited to the White House,” Boerner said at the time. “I think we were invited because we’re a mature, well-established fab lab and we’ve been doing very well, so they’d like to hear what we have to say.”
A hands-on administrator who gets directly involved in lab projects, Boerner stresses the community-based nature of the lab. It is available to innovators and corporate clients who want help or access to facilities and equipment to prototype a new product idea, as well as to persons just wanting to learn a craft for fun.
A retired entrepreneur himself, Boerner has high praise for the lab’s adjunct professors/instructors, who are only paid for the courses they teach. The rest of the time they are volunteers helping individuals who are working on a project or trying to develop a product. “After classes, students and instructors sit around talking and sharing information. It’s about networking and working together,” Boerner observes.
He says his role is to support the instructors and their ideas for classes. “My job is to support talent. You can’t let it stagnate.”
One of the accomplishments Boerner likes to talk about is Fab Lab’s building of Tobor the Great, the larger-than-life 12-foot haptic robot arm that is able to pick things up through the hand movements of someone wearing a special glove – thus, haptic. Tobor – robot spelled backwards – has become a popular ambassador for the Fab Lab, traveling all over the country, and as far away as California. Work is underway to improve the haptic glove, and to give Tobor sound.
The robot was conceived, engineered and manufactured entirely through the teamwork of 14 Fab Lab instructors who together spent 10,000 hours to complete the project. The motivation for building Tobor, according to Boerner: “We did it to prove what we could accomplish if we collaborated.”