NextFab to bring innovative technology to Wilmington

Members at NextFab’s original fabrication lab on Philadelphia’s Builders Row  use woodworking and a metal-cutting machines to make everything from engravings to furniture//Photo by Brian Harvath.
Members at NextFab’s original fabrication lab on Philadelphia’s Builders Row use woodworking and a metal-cutting machines to make everything from engravings to furniture//Photo by Brian Harvath.

By Kathy Canavan

Togo, one of the smallest countries in Africa, has a fab lab. So do Bangladesh, Malta and Tobago. Bahrain has two. By year’s end, Wilmington will have one.

Fab labs — fab is short for fabrication — are a bottom-up industrial revolution happening now in 672 spots around the world and 117 in the United States.

The labs give ordinary people access to tools that can cost as much as a Tesla. If you don’t know how to use a 3D printer or a robotic welding machine, you can take technical training on-site or hire a technical consultant.  If you’re an out-of-work engineer or architect, you can use Rhino or Altium software just as if you were back at the office.

Fab labs encourage people to make the things they imagine — from furniture to integrated circuitry. The labs are to U.S. manufacturing what Wikipedia is to encyclopedias.

The “maker movement” has turned tech upside down since the first fab lab opened 15 years ago. As fab lab guru Neil Gershenfeld of M.I.T. put it, “The message coming from the fab labs is that the other 5 billion people on the planet aren’t just technical sinks. They’re sources. The real opportunity is to harness the inventive power of the world to locally design and produce solutions to local problems.”

NextFab, the for-profit company that will open the Wilmington lab next fall, operates a Philadelphia lab that’s sandwiched between tiles showrooms and kitchen-cabinet companies on that city’s Builders Row. Beyond the cork-walled lobby with the gift kiosk that sells coding kits and cloudbit connectors, a warren of labs lives up to NextFab’s slogan: “a gym for innovators.”

One room is a mix of 21st century computerized tools and woodworking machines that would have been at home on Walton’s Mountain. Members can do mig-tig-stick welding or try out robotic welders that will assemble an integrated circuit with precision.

A diamond-tipped water drill can penetrate 12 inches of steel.

An oversized Y-belt sander can smooth an entire tabletop on one pass.

Jeff Brown, a NextFab member, uses an old-school metal-working machine that might have been in use in the 1930s.//Photos by Brian Harvath.
Jeff Brown, a NextFab member, uses an old-school metal-working machine that might have been in use in the 1930s.//Photos by Brian Harvath.

In less than a second, a plasma cutter will melt a 3/8 inch steel beam.

Computerized sewing machines do multi-color embroidery.

A 3D printer turned out swirly light fixtures for a wine bar.

Each computer at NextFab is loaded with a $100,000 software package — from CAD Machine Design to Rhino for architects to Altium and Eagle for machine design.

A roomful of 3D printers turns out everything from art to architectural models to airplane parts. When he was completing his doctoral program at Cornell, Evan Malone, the engineer who owns 90 percent of Fab Lab, printed out living biological tissue and robots that were 3D-printed right down to the batteries.

Malone’s vision is to regrow American manufacturing’s farm teams by offering individuals tools, training and connections to investors and manufacturers so they can make products in the U.S.  About 20 percent of his more than 600 members are professionals who run their own busineses. Some have on-site offices.

The lab, with community membership rates starting at $49 per month, isn’t currently making a profit, but Malone said it is making an impact.

“The way we teach is very approachable intentionally,” Malone said. “We’re trying to take the intimidation out of these tools so more people can do it if they want to do it.”

If geographer Jared Diamond is correct that geography forms the people, Wilmington residents will get a bump up next fall when Next Fab moves to the city’s Creative District, a changing 23-block area directly uphill from the Salvation Army and Wilmington Friends Meeting. The buildings sport Victorian details, wrought-iron embellishments, slate roofs and, sometimes, boarded-up windows. 

Items can be left to dry in the paint lab at NextFab’s Philadelphia location.
Items can be left to dry in the paint lab at NextFab’s Philadelphia location.

“Just their presence in the district, in terms of what we are envisioning for the next five years, is a big win,” said Carrie Gray, managing director of Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, the public-private partnership putting the pieces like housing and pedestrian connectors together. “This is probably 20 percent of the vision for the next five years.”

“This is kind of a quality-of-life enhancement for people who are into technology and want to build projects on their own time,” Malone said. “It’s also an employment and economic driver. There’s a direct economical impact from a facility like ours being in an area, with the concentration of people using it and with the purchase of a lot of materials and services. We support the local businesses because we try to buy locally if it’s not prohibitively expensive.”

Malone said he hopes NextFab will help workers who have been downsized from DuPont and other companies.  “A lot of those people are in chemistry and chemical engineering, but, to the extent that they are creative technical people, I think we’ll bring a lot of opportunities for ideas and networking, ” he said.

NextFab’s crooked path to Delaware began when Gray led a road trip to Builders Row to learn more about maker spaces. Malone mentioned off the cuff that he had been in Wilmington talking to some people employed by DuPont. She said, ‘We’ll have to talk to you about having a facility there.’ He nodded and smiled and said, “Maybe we will.”

That was the start of a two-year courtship that led to Delaware Economic Development Corp.’s approval of a $350,000 grant to bring NextFab to the city. The deal requires NextFab to add five staff jobs and sign up 120 members. The effect of those five jobs alone is expected to add $390,000 to the state’s GDP, according to DEDO. The real estate taxes will depend on the building Malone chooses.

Gray and her board members named the district “creative” rather than “arts” because they hoped to woo enterprises like NextFab. “When cities across the country talk about their arts district and you go there as a tourist, you very often put a box around it that is specific to visual arts and performing arts,” Gray said. “We want to use the term ‘creative’ very intentionally so there is a little bit more of an expanded idea of what you’d find here and who would want to find themselves here. We want to make sure that makers and tech innovators as well as artists and performers want to be in this neighborhood because that kind of creative mix that creates a really rich experience.”

Malone said he probably wouldn’t have expanded to Wilmington if not for Gray and her board and state officials: “It really does take somebody stepping up and making a case. It was really all their initiatives that led us to considering Wilmington. In our situation, it’s about partnering with the right people – somebody aligned with the vision we have. Delaware was willing to commit the funds to help make it possible and take a lot of capital risk out of it for us up front.”

As a consummate maker, Malone trusts the Creative District organizers can make a place that will provide affordable housing for his staff and draw entrepreneurs for his company.

“Wilmington is rising rapidly in the perception of the public and entrepreneurs. It’s being seen as a great place for startup companies because of all the banking and finance companies down there,” Malone said. “The Creative District is making affordable housing available. It’s more affordable than Philadelphia, frankly, and it provides a high quality of life for startups. And, it’s rapidly improving with all the new restaurants and bars and mixed-use buildings that are going to be coming. It will enable a larger base of entrepreneurial companies to have a high quality of life while they’re starting their companies.”

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