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Funding needed to build special ‘Fab Lab’ in Aurora

Mar 29, 2013
In The News

AURORA — A federal bill could be just what Waubonsee Community College needs to secure funding to build a state-of-the-art “Fab Lab” in Aurora.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat representing the 11th District, joined Mayor Tom Weisner, Waubonsee Community College President Christine Sobek and others Thursday afternoon to talk about the project.

“Fab Labs,” including the mobile lab that visited Waubonsee in 2010, are fabrication laboratories open to the public where children and adults can invent, design and manufacture products using design equipment.

The concept is growing rapidly. First developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are now more than 150 locations in the world, Foster said. Another 150 are currently in development.

To help spread the concept, Foster last week introduced a bill in Congress that would establish a National Fab Lab network in an effort to revive manufacturing trades in America and investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators.

The bill has bipartisan support from 15 co-sponsors, including the Republican who succeeded Foster in the 14th District, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren.

“The number of Fab Labs is doubling every 18 months,” Foster said. “Kids start out with simple things and go on to build robot parts to things you can’t imagine.”

The bill would establish a federal charter in support of Fab Lab development, a crucial step to legitimizing the concept as Waubonsee Community College seeks funding for its own Fab Lab location, Sobek said.

The college is currently planning to convert a second-floor classroom at its Aurora campus to house an Aurora Fab Lab.

Sobek said that as the college has applied for grants to establish the lab, communicating what a Fab Lab is and how it works has been a challenge. Waubonsee would need a few hundred thousand dollars to get a Fab Lab up and running, Foster said.

“To me the beauty of having a national charter is now people begin to understand what we’re talking about,” Sobek said. “I think that would help us tremendously as an institution trying to bring one to Aurora and to have greater success with funders.”

Sobek said she sees the SciTech Hands On Museum, the Aurora Public Library and neighboring school districts as natural partners for the project.

Steven Kase, owner of Aurora-based ASK Products, Inc., which manufactures electrical connectors for companies like ComEd, said Fab Labs could help fill the void he sees: a skilled workforce prepared for advanced manufacturing jobs.

“One things is very clear, they turn on a young mind,” said Kase, who is also chairman of the Illinois Premier Full Service Manufacturing Association.

According to the bill, the charter would establish a mechanism for the national network to accept funding from private individuals, corperations and government agencies, but wouldn’t set aside federal funding for fab labs at this time, Foster said.

Because the bill doesn’t commit federal money, Foster said he’s received widespread support for the bill. If Foster can get it through the House, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, will work to get it to a vote in the Senate, Foster said.

“I think (Hultgren came up to me) walking down the steps of the Capitol. I think either I was late for a vote or he was late for a vote ... he said, ‘Bill, I want to get on your Fab Lab bill,’” Foster said. “Congress is not as organized or as disorganized as it appears.”