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Build It and They Will Come Build

The best risk ever is betting on the virtues of human nature. By investing in a “fab lab,” Rob Adams says he’s betting on the creativity of the people of Rocket City.

An array of high-tech workshop equipment attracts serious inventors and weekend tinkerers to MindGear Lab in Huntsville, says owner Rob Adams.

An array of high-tech workshop equipment attracts serious inventors and weekend tinkerers to MindGear Lab in Huntsville, says owner Rob Adams.

Photo by Dennis Keim

When Rob Adams spent a year working at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 2010, he stumbled onto a trend that made him feel right at home. The trend was the fab lab (fabrication laboratory), a public-access laboratory full of modern equipment to facilitate invention by amateurs.

An engineer who had lived in Huntsville since 1996, Adams knew his fellow engineers and local garage tinkerers, artists, inventors and their children would relish a place where they could go to design and build the ideas in their heads, with all the necessary equipment at their disposal.

When his year in D.C. came to an end, Adams “decided to come back home and make it happen,” he says. Last year, Adams and his partner, Tia Wheeler, opened MindGear Labs, Alabama’s first fab lab, just off Interstate 565 and close to Cummings Research Park. The space is open, inviting and fully stocked with high-dollar equipment for digital fabrication of just about anything.

For instance, MindGear lab users, known as members, have used the in-house equipment to build customized cat furniture, holiday decorations, a laser-cut astrolabe, vinyl signs and banners, custom circuit boards, 3D models of 2D sketches, and a wide variety of wood and metal objects.

“Anything you can design on a computer, you can build in here,” Adams says, describing MindGear Labs as a high-tech woodworking and metal shop, in which all equipment is computer controlled. Those designs can be drawn with easy-to-use software programs like Google Sketch on in-lab computers or on a personal computer. They can be built with a variety of materials, including wood, cardboard, plastic and metals. The lab is equipped with all kinds of tools, such as soldering irons, drills, glue guns, heat guns and laptops. And it’s full of huge, heavy-duty equipment, such as a CNC (computer numeric controlled) mill, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, milling and scanning machine and a 3D printer.

“This is like the best garage workspace you’ll ever find,” Adams says. “It has all the equipment that you’d never splurge to buy for yourself, and everything you need is always here, right where you can find it, ready to use. I can’t imagine anyone’s garage holding a candle to this place.”

THE FAB LAB MOVEMENT

The first fab lab began as an outreach project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms. Today, these labs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to Norway. They have become known for empowering people to use technology, training people for technology projects, solving local problems, incubating high-tech businesses and hosting grassroots research. In fab labs across the world, some of the projects being developed and produced include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing and rapid-prototyping machines.

Most include about $50,000 worth of equipment and materials “that can be used today to do what will be possible with tomorrow’s personal fabricators,” according to MIT’s Fab Lab information website.

In more agrarian times, Americans once made most of the items they used, but today, “for each item we purchase, there are a million others just like it,” Adams says. “If we made more of our own stuff, we would have more personalized items, we would be able to create items that are more suitable to our environment and culture, and we would make things that last.” 

Fab lab creators believe that the types of computerized building equipment they have to offer will become increasingly available, leading to a rise in the manufacturing of individual items for individual people. “We are on the verge of a technological revolution in which anyone can make almost anything by using computer controlled machinery,” Adams says.

BUILDING A COMMUNITY

But MindGear Labs is not just about designing, inventing, building and creating. It’s also about interacting with others of like mind. “We’re trying to build a community of people who want to make things,” Adams says. “Every single time two or more people are here working on projects, they meet each other, start talking about projects, get hints and ideas from each other and almost always end up working together. With a workspace in your own garage, you don’t get the community aspect.”

MindGear encourages members to build camaraderie by hosting monthly project competitions and offering classes in different types of design and equipment usage. In our busy society, Adams says his greatest challenge is getting people to carve time out to come to the lab and create the things they want to make.

Just before Christmas, one young mother came in and purchased a yearlong membership for her husband, saying she was going to encourage him to come use the lab at least one night a week. “She said he would never do it on his own because he’d feel guilty to leave her and the kids,” Adams says. “But she said if she bought it for him, he would use it, and she thought it would be good for him to pursue his hobby of inventing things.”

For those who have begun using the lab regularly, Adams says there’s a shared feeling of accomplishment when a project is completed, and a camaraderie that develops among those who love to invent and build things. “Everybody has an idea,” Adams continues. “But it takes a special person to sit down and take time out and take the risk to make that idea come to life. To come and tinker one or two days a week is really worth it. And I’m betting there are enough people in Huntsville who feel the same way.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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