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Mobile lab gives Aurorans chance for hands-on technology

Aug 6, 2013
In The News

It’s not so out-of-reach to think the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators could get their inspiration from inside a modest looking mobile unit or workshop called a “Fab Lab.”

On Monday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mobile Fab Lab that has been touring the country was parked out front of the SciTech Museum on Benton Street in Aurora.

The state-of-the-art fabrication laboratory, described as “Lincoln Logs” on steroids, is designed to introduce children about the possibilities to invent, design and manufacture products from computer-controlled technology.

The Fab Lab will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Wednesday.

People in labcoats wearing facial goggles were hovered over 3-D printers and other smart devices valued at $80,000 to $100,000, explaining to children and parents about the endless possibilities from inside the 30-foot mobile unit.

A brother and sister from Oswego, Adam Whelphley, 11, and Mya, 6, were intrigued by a laser cutter capable of cutting a variety of material using a concentrated beam of light.

“This is cutting wood with light that resembles a laser pointer but 7,000 times more powerful,” said Christian McNamara, an intern for the MIT’s Wanger Family Fab Lab at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

There also was a “MakerBot Replicator 2,” a personal use desktop 3-D printer that was operating using a spool of plastic to create layers to build a nut and bolt as a final product. “It’s like a hot glue gun on rails,” McNamara said.

McNamara said the device is part of a “personal fabrication revolution,” as when computers became accessible but this uses materials once only used on factory floors. “When you are designing on paper, it is not the same as holding a part in your hand,” McNamara said.

On hand to celebrate the three-day visit of the Fab Lab at the SciTech Museum were U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, and Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, as well as SciTech Executive Director Arlene Hawks.

The Fab Lab concept began as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

“The next generation of kids will have access to tools that will allow them to make anything they can imagine real and something they can hold in their hands,” Foster said.

“It’s also a sneaky way of making them learn coordinate geometry,” the retired Fermilab physicist said.

Foster last spring co-introduced the National Fab Lab Network Act, bipartisan legislation which would create a federal charter for a nonprofit organization. The proposed National Fab Lab Network would serve as a public-private partnership whose purpose would be to facilitate the creation of a national network of Fab Labs.

Weisner said the United States has led the world economy because of how it has been “the nation of innovation,” but in order to sustain that leadership it must realize it is a competitive economy.

The mayor said Aurora is pursuing having a permanent fabrication laboratory

“Aurora is committed to investing in the next generation,” Weisner said.

Also on hand were educators Sherry Eagle, director of the Institute for Collaboration at Aurora University, and Christine Sobek, president of Waubonsee Community College.

“Applying engineering, the content that brings math and science together becomes thrilling to students if it can be seen, touched and manipulated through creating and designing,” Eagle said. “The tinkering that children did years ago that sparked imagination will come alive through time spent in the mobile Fab Lab.”

Sobek said having a local Fab Lab would be a resource to assist inventors and entrepreneurs to fabricate prototypes or new products.

“We believe a Fab Lab would boost our local economy and provide collaborative opportunities,” Sobek said.

Hawks said SciTech already has one of the smart devices but would have to establish a partnership and work through the logistics to dedicate an on-site Fab Lab in the museum.

Steven Kase, CEO of Ask Products in Aurora, said the Fab Lab is a way to pique the interest of young people and bring the area back into a “manufacturing renaissance.”