A concept that started at MIT more than a decade ago is making its mark in the Kansas City area. It’s called Fab Lab. That’s short for fabrication laboratory. It’s home to cutting edge technology such as a laser engraver and 3d printers plus tools and machinery seen in high school shop classes.
Metropolitan Community College’s Business and Technology campus is in an industrial area at 435 and Front Street. It’s surrounded by traditional manufacturers, and that’s much of what students go there to learn. But some students are also taking a crack at designing what’s next.
The Fab Lab at MCC has been around for about a year and a half and is part of a growing trend of taking making high tech design tools available to students and the public. The lab’s director William Allyn says these types of places allow designs to be more than theoretical.
“People like to build things on whatever level of education or industry they’re in and this allows them to do that whether that be at MIT or in the middle of Missouri here,” says Allyn.
From MIT to a community college isn’t such a stretch. MIT trains engineers. They do the theoretical side of things. MCC trains students in engineering technology. They’ll end up doing a lot of the hands-on work, putting theory into practice.
Much of the machinery for the Fab Lab was already on campus, but the lab brought it and students from different fields together into one place. Allyn says this is critical.
“It has to be from different areas. Most objects have some sort of electronic component, then a mechanical component, there’s usually an ergonomic component. Unless it’s a very, very specific project and we have had those it’s usually a combination of students that do this,” says Allyn
The lab is used for several MCC classes and by UMKC and Kansas City Art Institute students for engineering and art projects. But lab assistant Jenn Dec says the lab can be used for personal projects. She describes one student who made Christmas gifts there.
“He came in for quite a few weeks prior to Christmas and had found just a wealth of snowflake designs on the internet and proceeded to cut a multitude of snowflakes out of plywood for the most part,” says Dec.
The Fab Lab has a lot of potential for businesses in the area thanks to a 3D printer and 3D scanner. These tools can be used to make prototypes.
A 3D printer looks something like a large microwave, looking the door you can see the machine laying down microscopic layers of plastic. Allyn it works a little bit like an old dot matrix printer.
“As it prints one layer, the table will move down and it will come back and print another layer and the plastic is fused together in those layers,” says Allyn.
Jim West works at Biomedical Devices of Kansas, which designs tools for surgery and experimental treatment for breast cancer. West say the company uses online prototyping services, but he says this could be beneficial to local companies.
“The stuff they have is very nice. The fact that it’s local, that it’s probbly cheaper than the online option. That all makes it very attractive,” says West.
Students can get in on the ground floor of helping design and build prototypes. All students are required to do an internship or capstone, and some have worked to develop new products that are in the process of getting patented--something Allyn hopes will happen more in the future.