Building the foundation for digital fabrication: A real-world example

Despite recent popular interest in 3D printing as a transformative technology, assembly of a full suite of digital machines (e.g. computer-controlled laser cutters and numerically-controlled precision milling machines) and software tools offering capabilities that 3D printers don’t have is required to fully support digital fabrication opportunities.

Since 2005, Fox Valley Technical College has been home to the FVTC FabLab, part of the global network of MIT-managed FabLabs. FVTC offers inventors, students, and businesses access to leading-edge fabrication technologies and the shared global knowledge and training in the FabLab structure, and tailors the facility and services to meet the existing and nascent needs of Wisconsin’s industry drivers and future entrepreneurs. In addition to experiential learning for students and outreach to middle and high schools, the facility offers a full suite of funding and business support (e.g. proof-of-concept prototyping and mentoring) through strategic local partners (e.g. Venture Centre) and facility staff.

Since its launch, the FVTC FabLab has been named as un-funded co-inventor in 11 patent applications and awards, generated over 500 initial, virtual, and feasibility prototypes (e.g. Deuce Mop Wringer), and resulted in an additional $250,000 in economic development impact generated for regional industry and government, including commercially available products (e.g. Safety Sewer Drain) for niche or specialized applications.

The evolution of digital fabrication to the creation of complete functional systems in a single process is still decades away. However, the makerspaces or FabLab facilities that align with the needs of the local economy and combine existing digital manufacturing technologies with local and global knowledge and business support networks are likely building the basic foundation that will allow them to move quickly as new innovations in digital fabrication emerge.

This post originally appeared in TINAN 49Subscribe to TINAN to get the latest economic development news and resources.