High-tech maker space opens doors for budding designers
I know how much time you spend on Pinterest, scanning through the DIY-project and craft boards, dreaming of the day you will have your own workshop. You’ll need a laser cutter to create unique wooden business cards and leather pendant jewelry; a router to fashion that amazing coffee table and those vintage-style kids toys; and, of course, a 3-D printer to create your own plastic swizzle sticks.
Too bad you can’t just divert a few thousand dollars from your 401(k) for some of these toys.
Thankfully, you don’t have to, because as of May 4, Chico has its own membership-based collaborative open-source workshop offering access to tools like these. Idea Fabrication Labs is a “digital-fabrication facility” located just a few blocks from downtown and Chico State.
On a recent balmy Friday evening, my 10-year-old son and I met with two of the founding members of this fab lab, web developers Jordan Layman and Sean Mitchell, in the recently renovated 7,000-square-foot workspace. My son asked the question that was burning in my own mind: How did you get the idea to do this?
“We’re nerds,” they replied.
It started a year and a half ago at the Naked Lounge coffeehouse, a downtown gathering space for artists, writers and tech lovers. Layman admired the shirt worn by another patron and asked him where he’d gotten it. The “guy in the shirt” was Erin Banwell, a sculptor and artist who, along with his wife, Kristina, designs and creates products using a laser cutter.
“We got to talking and just hit it off,” explained Layman. From similar interests in art and technology came the idea to create a “maker space” where technology could be used to help facilitate people’s ideas. The five friends, including fellow “maker” Billy Hopkins, brainstormed ways to make it happen. “We spent a lot of nights just totally geeking out,” said Mitchell. “A lot of people at computers, a lot of discussion, whiteboards … a lot of whiteboards.”
Together, they transformed a warehouse that had previously housed a reptile farm into a big, inviting space with white walls and wooden floors. The three core areas of the facility reflect the three main missions of the lab: an art gallery showcasing technologically created art; a maker space with computers and tables for collaboration; and, of course, the tool-work rooms.
In the gallery were elaborate geometrical figures laser-cut from wood, as well as interlinked metal and sandstone figures that had been fashioned entirely by using a 3-D printer. They were the work of Dave Seied, an artist and sculptor out of Colorado who is the Fab Lab’s first artist-in-residence. “Our plan is to have these regular exhibitions of different artists from all over the world come work for two weeks and then have the gallery showcase,” said Layman. (Although, since their 3-D printer isn’t scheduled to arrive for another couple of months, Seied did create his 3-D objects for the show elsewhere.)
At one point in our tour Mitchell said the magic words: “Do you want to come check out the laser?”
The laser cutter looks like an oversized copier with a glass top. Mitchell used the computer next to it to design a simple hexagon shape, while Layman lifted the glass top and put a flat piece of wood into the machine. The laser is reflected onto a mirror that moves around the wood on two axes, emitting a sound not unlike a pet-store tag cutter. A small flame flickered where the laser cut through the wood and a sweet, campfire-like smell rose from the machine. When the cutting was done, Sean lifted the lid and presented the hexagon to my son, who turned it over in his hand. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “That’s neat!”
There are hourly, weekly and monthly memberships for varying hours of reserved time in the workshop space. In addition to the high-tech equipment, members will have access to all of the woodworking tools, including a chop saw, drills and a grinder. Safety classes are offered (and required) before using many of the tools.
“A lot of what’s happened here has been very ad hoc, very organic, and we’re sort of following the open-source methodology, which is a software concept but can be applied to any system,” explained Layman. It’s hoped that the members of the lab will work in the spirit of this kind of sharing. “It’s really about collaboration.”