Not your usual space: A Visit to NextFab Studio, Philadelphia PA

Street view of NextFab Studio.

Street approach to NextFab Studio shows workspaces. Click for Flicker set of all my pics from the visit.

NextFab Studio is a very different space from any other I have visited. It is has a highly visible location on the street level of a busy main street in Philadelphia amidst university buildings.  Almost all the workspaces are visible from the street through large windows.  Clean, bright, extremely well equipped, it primarily serves small businesses, artists and students out of the University City Science Center rather than scruffy hackers.  My flicker set has a lot more pics of the lab.

NOTE: in the couple years since this was written NextFab Studios has moved. Their current location is 2025 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19146. I hope to visit them again soon and give an update.

Evan Malone, founder of NextFab Studio in the locker area.

The lab was founded by Evan Malone, co-creator of Fab@Home. It opened in January of 2010 with support from BreadBoard and University City Science Center.  The Science Center is an incubator providing space, knowledge and sometimes funding for startups. Locating the lab here brings together the means/knowledge of production and companies in need of it.  They have approximately 4000sqft of space with 10 full time staff.  These trained staff members have professional backgrounds in sculpture, photography, mechanical and systems engineering, graphic design, etc.  This allows NextFab Studio to offer a range of design and consulting services in addition to basic training and machine access.

The space is organized as an LLC. It is funded by some startup grants and a variety of memberships.  Aside from student and individual memberships, corporate and institutional accounts are available that provide access for multiple employee, with training included.  The web site lists about 25 different classes ranging from basic safety and machine usage, to various software packages (Illustrator, Photoshop, Solidworks) and skills like Product Photography.  The “Orientation and Workshop Safety Training” is required for each and every member, including each associate under a corporate or institutional account.

Tour of Space

Reception area with samples, etc

Evan Malone met us at the reception area and gave us about a 30-40 minute tour of the facility. The reception area is set up like many office areas, but with lots of sample products scattered across counter. There is a fair sized collection of lockers of assorted sizes where members can store projects, etc.

Classroom meeting area is large and well equipped.

A large open classroom area has an impressive A/V setup.  The room is available to members for use on their own projects, for consultations, and classes. It is also home to their 3d scanner and t-shirt press in one corner and large format printers and vinyl cutters in the other. An alcove off this room houses several high end sewing machines.

Part of Wet Lab Room with fab@home printer

At the end of the conference area was a doorway to one of the few rooms not visible from the street – the Wet Lab. Here we found a Makerbot Cupcake CNC with a Frostruder right across from a Fab@Home printer. There is also a curing oven, large fume hood extractor, sink, etc.  I have yet to find a room like this in any other hackerspace.  Perhaps some of the new diy-bio spaces, but I havent been to any yet.

One of the electronics workbenches at NextFab Studios has more equipment than many spaces have in total.

Next we walked back through the conference room, past reception to the other side of the space.  Here we found a small room with a half dozen computer workstations – 2 Mac Pros and 4 home-built windows PCs. Thats more than most spaces have in total. This was just off a very well equipped electronics area with two long benches, festooned with soldering setups and test equipment. Droool. Turning around there is a very tall rack of fairly well organized parts.  Its not quite the major ‘junk’ collection we have at most spaces but here at last is a corner that feels more like home.

Part of metal bending area in corner window

Beyond the electronics area we come to the light metal working and 3d printing room at the corner of the space. Here we find a good set of metal bending, cutting and forming equipment on one side, and some high end commercial 3d Printers on the other.  A light drill press, very large tool chest, metal shear, roller and lots of hand tools are neatly arranged around the far side.  Opposite, we find a Z-Corp 3d printer and cleanup glove box.  The Z-Corp uses a powder that can be infused with colors as well as the glue that holds layers together.  This gives the ability to print colorful parts. However the objects do tend to be a bit fragile.  NextFab also has a nice Stratasys printer near the door.  Oh, yeah and one of those really nice Roland MDX-540 desktop CNC mills.  So far, I’ve seen way more equipment than any space short of TechShop.

Metal lathe, press and a view into welding area in the heavy machine area

Then we walk into the heavy machine room.  Ooooo.  First thing I see is a nice clean JET metal lathe. Behind it is the welding area. Aside from an Oxy-Acetylene rig, a nice MIG, and a TIG setup, they’ve got a bloody CNC plasma table!! Its a Torchmate II and I’m almost thinking of moving to Philly. No. Not really. I’d rather get or build one in Maui, but still this place has an awesome setup… and I’m just getting started in the machine shop.  And it is a fully equipped machine shop.

Just some of the heavy machinery in their Machine Shop

Exiting the welding room, we are faced with a wonderful array of heavy machines.  Around the walls we find a large drill press, a knee mill, a horizontal band saw, a chop saw, an industrial SawStop table saw, jig saw, small band saw, sanding/grinding machine and then the big boys:  A ShopBot PRSAlpha 48″x48″ CNC routing table and a Trotec Speedy 500 Laser cutter.  I could spend weeks in here! Go look at the flicker set and try not to drool too much.

External conference fish bowl with bunch of 3d printers

Thats the full tour of NextFab Studios. We’ve walked through the whole of their 4000+sqft space and I am very impressed.  But wait, One more thing… Evan walks us out the back door into the University City Science Center building proper and just down the hall is yet another conference room.  This is one of those fishbowl rooms with glass almost all around.  This is where Evan has had some high school interns working with a variety of 3d printers.

As we completed our tour, Evan told us about an exhibit of art produced at NextFab Studio. Machinato Causa at the Esther Klein Gallery runs till Jan 2nd 2011.  A collection of three artists were given six week residency at NextFab Studio and produced set of sculptures and installation pieces.  This is across the street and down a few doors, in the lobby of another building, so we stopped in for a look.  The hanging sculpture constructed of laser cut materials, LEDs and EL-wire was interesting.  The security guard chased me away after the flash went off.

Summary: NextFab Studio is a more commercially oriented space than any other I have visited except TechShop.  It is wonderfully well equipped facility. If I was in Philly and had a small business/idea this would be a terrific place to work on it.  Someday I hope to create access to a fair portion of this tech on Maui.

Young Makers – teaching kids to learn by doing

The Young Makers Program is a collaboration between MAKE Magazine, The Exploratorium, and Pixar. The purpose of the program is to inspire and develop the next generation of makers, creators, and innovators.

The Young Makers Program is different in several ways from other activities such as robotics competitions and science fairs. In particular, there are no winners and losers, and the projects are cross-disciplinary and youth-driven. And, just like Maker Faire, anything that’s cool is fair game.

I am very interested in getting a Young Makers Program going with Maui Makers. Ideally we’d send some (all?) of the kids/projects to the Maker Faire next may, but perhaps these would also form the core of our own local Make:Maui faire. If you are a teen/young adult and interested, teacher or a maker who wants to mentor, please contact me – email, comment here, post to our google group. Of course, the key component will be Young Makers. They may not be stumbling on this, so if you know some, point em this way.

Here’s a 1hr video from Google Tech Talks (Thanks Les V!) that presents the idea along with sample projects from kids.

EL Wire Class Dec 15 2010

EL Wire Soldering Class was good fun

Last night (Wed Dec 15 2010), Maui Makers held its first class – Soldering EL Wire.  I purchased 10 Learn To Solder Kits from Cool Neon.  The each kit come with a half dozen sample lengths of Electroluminescent (EL) wire in various colors and widths (pre-stripped and ready for solder!!), four battery powered Drivers, copper tape, solder, heat shrink, solder iron, and instructions. Of course the online instructions are better.  Cool Neon has a nice intro video featuring Benjamin James (leader of fun house productions, aka Cool Neon), along with a written guide. My friend Matt Pinner at CrashSpace have also posted a great How-To on soldering EL wire.

A word about the instructions – Most of the instructions do not mention the copper tape.  The tape is used to secure the tiny angel wires prior to soldering.  This method seems to work a lot better than the simple “wrap angel wires around connector wire” method in the instructions. In particular, it avoids shorts between the angel wire and main interior wire.  The online written guide from Cool Neon does mention and nicely illustrate both techniques.  I’d like to see Benjamin’s next video mention this alternative.  Ben does give some good extra pointers and tips in the video – like linking your thumbs for stability.

Back to the class – I got 10 kits at a nice discount (thanks Ben!) ’cause we’re a hackerspace teaching classes.  I had at least 10 people say they were interested and I sent out several reminders, etc.   I got a couple people RSVPd positive and one had a late nite gig so he had to cancel.  I spent the day cleaning up the house – dogs and Haiku mud make for a mess on any floor. At least hardwood cleans fairly easy.

I also wired up some of the LED Flexi-Strip I got from AdaFruit with a new Arduino Mega 2560 and set those outside as a beacon. My tub-o-wall-warts came in handy here.  I needed a high amp 12v power supply to insure the 5m of wire lit up. My tub yielded up a nice Microsoft 12v, 1.5A brick, which of course had a different connector than the Mega.  I snipped off the end and soldered on some breadboard wires, stuck the whole thing in a cardboard box and set it out by the end of driveway.  It did help people find the place, although when Brian T first saw them, he thought the blue and red lights were the police raiding our wild party.

Cole S showed up about 7pm just as I was finishing hanging the LED lights.  As usual we immediately started talking up big ideas.  Shortly afterwards Jessica arrived, followed by Tommy R and Brian T.  Chris T and Rachel showed up not too long after.  That was six people, two of whom had come after the 10 kits were spoken for.  Given that Ben H wasnt coming and it was already about 8pm, I figured the rest were also no-shows and I let Tommy and Jessica have kits.

After socializing for a good while, we started in on picking out kit parts.  Cool Neon had not separated the parts into 10 sets so we all went round and picked out our parts.  Tommy had brought his own brand new Hakko 936 iron and Chris brought a couple small ones. Everyone else dug in with the irons provided with kits.  Most of these seemed to work, however Cole went through three of em before we gave up and I let him use my Aoyue 2900.  Not sure why the irons failed to heat, or in one case sparked.  I’ll give them and the rest of the unused ones a good test and talk with Benjamin about this.

We watched the video and then everyone started in.  Six people working was pretty chaotic.  I was quite busy jumping from one to next to help out with questions, etc.  It would have been nearly unworkable if we’d had a full 10 person class.   Of course, my teaching style this time around was also fairly chaotic (“ok go for it”).  Much learned for next class.  We had quite a variety of skill levels too.  Some had lots of experience and dug right in. Others had never used a soldering iron before.

Cole was the first to get a working product and others followed shortly after.  Cole went on to make a number of other wires, and found out how difficult those tiny wires can be.  If you are not careful, you can easily break them. Then you have to strip a new end, which can be very tricky – it is very easy to cut the angel wires when stripping.  Ben makes it look so easy in the video. My wire stripper, which looks just like his, either didnt cut thru or broke the wires every time. grrr.

EL Wire Class Dec 15 2010

L2R: Chris T, Rachel, Tommy, Jessica, Brian T, Cole S. showing off their EL Wire creations

Anyway all were quite successful in soldering up EL Wire and we had a great time socializing and kibitzing.  It was Jessica and Rachel’s first time at a Maui Maker meeting. I’m sure they will be back!  Rachel (a body painter and teacher) had to leave a bit early but plans to return for more discussions and practice.  She has lots of budding ideas for using EL Wire at the Source Festival in February. Jessica is a great new find.  She is a terrific geek with lots of ideas.  She plans to insert one of the EL Wire pieces into a mongoose skeleton – I cant wait to see pics of that!

The crowd thinned out until it was just Tommy, Cole and I. We wound up talking until after midnight. I’m sure we could have gone a LOT longer but both of em were talking about having to go to work in morning so I finally chased em out the door.

All in all, it was a great workshop and learning experience.  I’m looking forward to the next one!  I will get more kits for those who missed out or want to join up.  Now I need to get working on some EL Wire to make something to wear to the TRON opening tomorrow.

Meeting and EL Wire Soldering Class Wed Dec 15 2010

CoolNeon's EL Wire Kit - image from their site, actual parts may vary a bit.

My order for EL Wire Learn to Solder kits came in from Cool Neon. They were very helpful folks and gave me a bulk discount and break on shipping. The kits include a soldering iron, solder, several samples of EL Wire and several inverter drivers (along with batteries).

We will be holding a class using these kits on Wed Dec 15th. The kits cost me approx $30 each (w/shipping, etc) and the earlier email announcements got about 10 responses. If all those people show up and pay, I’ll still have a bit extra as I bought a few meters of wire too.

Maker Shed "Learn To Solder Kit" includes soldering iron + this kit.

And if you want to learn basic electronics soldering, I also have five Learn To Solder Kits from MakerShed.  These also include a soldering iron and some other basic materials.

So Come to the class/meeting on Dec 15th at my home in Haiku.  Starting about 7pm so we have time to talk and build.  Bring drinks and snacks if you want.

Neither of the kits do include a ‘third hand’ or iron holder, which is definitely useful when working with EL Wire or electronics in general.   There are some other tools and parts that might come in handy – cutting board,  sponge/copper scrubber for cleaning iron, etc.  If you have them, please bring them.

One rather nice soldering holder was created by my friends back at CrashSpace. I was looking around but cant find the required basic materials.  If you have them, please bring to the meeting!

Homemade plastic extrusion system for Aquaponics

Make Blog today had a post that caught my eye on a “Homemade plastic extrusion system

Turns out the he uses his extrusion system for turning HDPE pellets into thin, textured strips his aquaponics grown plants liked.

His youtube site has some other vids that might interest our aquaponics makers.