reWorking Michigan: Fab Lab helps Michigan inventors

Jan 30, 2012

FLINT, MI (WKAR) - reWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future.

For our Monday reWorking Michigan report this week, WKAR's Scott Pohl visited a laboratory where inventors can get help making a prototype of the product they want to take to market.

The Fab Lab is at Mott Community College in Flint.

The Fab in Fab Lab is short for fabrication. The brainchild of a professor at MIT, the first Fab Labs were offshore, designed to help underdeveloped countries. In recent years, they've spread across the U.S. There now are about 50 of them, many at community colleges, and five are in Michigan.

At Mott Community College's Fab Lab, the director is Doug Prehoda. He says people with good ideas come to the lab for help creating a prototype.

"So that's really what this lab is for," Prehoda says, "is for people to come in with an idea, an entrepreneur off the street, and with an idea. Either we help them or they do it themselves, and come out with a working prototype that they can take to venture capitalists or to the bank, to where they can say instead of just I got this idea, here's my part. Here's what I want to make."

The lab includes computer aided design and drafting stations, a laser cutter, an electronics work space, and bigger equipment for cutting wood and metal.

Perhaps the most impressive thing here is a rapid prototyper. Starting with plastic that looks like the string your lawn trimmer uses, the machine builds a prototype from the ground up.

Here's an example: think of a simple adjustable wrench. Prehoda shows me what looks like a plastic wrench that might come with a toy set, but it wasn't made in separate parts that required assembly. Instead, it was built in one piece, with layers about the thickness of a human hair. When it first comes out of the machine, the parts won't budge, but a second process removes excess plastic.

"As soon as you take it out, it works," Prehoda explains. "You have a working model of your part that you could take to somebody and say here's what it's going to be. Is it going to be made out of this material? No. You're going to make it out of something else, but at least you have a model to take to venture capitalists or to a bank, and say here it is."

David Allen is president of Wow Products USA, a company with 20 employees in Caro, Michigan. They make things like special bins for hospitals, and non-drip coffee mugs. They also make products for the "As Seen on TV" line, like the Twisty Clip hair styler and the Tread Ahead, a ridged mat that can help you get your car unstuck from the snow. He's turned to the lab for help making prototypes of about ten different products. He's at the lab to see a prototype for something he calls the Bungee Tight, a little device that can shorten a bungee cord to just the right length.

Before, Allen would have had to hire an engineering company to create computer aided design and drafting, or CADD, files. Then, he'd have to take those files to another company to make a prototype. The Fab Lab is saving him time and money.

"We're working at a discount because we're working with the students," Allen says. "This gives them not only CADD experience, but I believe real life experience, because there certainly can be some frustrations with hey change it, hey change it, I think it's right, change it again, run it again. But that's what you're going to experience out in the real world."

Allen thinks the Fab Lab is helping him keep work in Michigan, and he might be finding future employees here.

Mott Community College sophomore William Denton has worked with Allen on the Bungee Tight. A self-described lifelong Legomaniac, Denton loves this stuff. He thinks his experience at the Fab Lab could help him expand his future employment horizons beyond Michigan's traditional auto industry track.

"The Fab Lab brings all different walks of life," Denton says, "and it lets me explore my CADD degree in different markets. With the medical market or toy market, or even simpler things that aren't directly auto related, and it really opens up a different area for me to work in than just, you're from Michigan, you've got to be an auto worker."

Fab Lab director Doug Prehoda adds that they're moving into what he calls "virtual incubation". In the internet age, why should an inventor have to actually visit the lab? He's working right now with an inventor based in Mexico.

Michigan's Fab Labs, like this one in Flint, are putting sophisticated equipment normally only found at big companies into the hands of the everyday person.