Local Fab Lab gives tools to innovation to Champaign-Urbana

Community members came together Thursday afternoon for the grand opening of the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab, which aims to inspire innovative thinking in the general population.

The lab, which has been open to the public since April, is part of a global network of Fab Labs, which give community members the opportunity to have access to equipment and materials to design and build almost anything they can imagine or want.

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The local Fab Lab is a joint effort by the University, Parkland College, the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club and several other community organizations.

Neil Gershenfeld, director of The Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed the first Fab Lab at MIT.

In conjunction with the opening event, Gershenfeld spoke about the role of Fab Labs in empowering ordinary people to create technology.

“The Fab Lab is here to make the stuff you can’t get at Wal-Mart,” he said.

The lab is currently housed at 1301 S. Goodwin Avenue, in a building whose space was donated by FAA. It is targeted to middle-school through high-school age students, but the lab has had users from 8-months old to people in their 80s.

Most of the machinery, a lot which was donated, consists of laser cutters, a printed-circuit board milling machine and workspace for soldering components and testing.

The lab is completely run by volunteers, such as Gary Watson, program director, who use to work at Abbott Power Plant before he retired.

Watson worked to use the initial funding of $50,000 they received from the provost office to procure computers and equipment for the lab.

Administrators across campus from the colleges of Engineering, Education and Fine and Applied Arts attended the opening event.

Robert Graves, Dean of FAA, said his college supports people being able to exercise their creativity and be able to watch their ideas come to fruition.

State Senator Mike Frerichs, D-52, also attended the grand opening ceremony.

“A lot of exciting things are going on in here,” he said. “It’s great to see how they’ve used limited resources, and I’m confident the Fab Lab will continue to grow.”

House Rep. Bill Foster, D-14, who lost his re-election fight introduced a bill to provide funding for a national network of community Fab Labs.

Lauren Semeraro, sophomore in Engineering and student worker at the lab, said she enjoys working at the lab.

“It’s great to see people designing things they’ve always wanted to,” she said.

Freshman students in Illinois Foundry for innovation in Engineering Education, a program within Engineering which has worked on reforming engineering education at the University, have worked on creating a 3-D printer that will be used in the lab.

“These labs do a great job at exciting young minds to the possibility of pursuing technology-oriented careers,” said David Goldberg, professor of industrial and enterprise systems engineering and co-founder of the program.

Richard Wheeler, Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, also stopped by to check out the lab. He said although he probably would not be creating any new technologies himself, he was excited to see the lab become a vibrant place for innovation.

“It’s quite nifty,” he said.