Fabrication innovation: FabLab and Rapid Prototyping Lab support inventors, businesses, students

If you work or take classes at MCC, chances are you’ve at least heard of the college’s state-of-the-art FabLab. But do you really know what it is? And have you heard of the FabLab’s sister lab, the Rapid Prototyping Lab? If not, you’re in luck. Here’s the scoop on both!

OVERVIEW

The MCC FabLab, located at MCC-Business & Technology, is an environment where students, inventors and representatives from small and large businesses can conceptualize, design, develop, fabricate and test a variety of products and ideas. A user employs state-of-the-art fabrication software and equipment such as prototype printers and precision machining equipment to give some shape to a product idea that had, until now, only existed in the innovator’s mind. Users also have access to knowledgeable BTC faculty and staff who can provide guidance on projects, ideas and concepts. The FabLab incorporates skills and knowledge from several disciplines including: Computer Aided Drafting and Design, Engineering, Welding, Precision Machining, and Electronics.

The MCC Rapid Prototyping Lab is one of the most versatile rapid prototyping facilities in the region. What is rapid prototyping, you ask? It is a technique that uses fancy 3D printing technology and computer aided design data (CADD) to produce a physical model of something; the process is often used when inventing a new product or improving an existing product.

The function of the Rapid Prototyping Lab, also located at the Business & Technology campus, is two-fold:
  • to serve as a learning enhancement to the Engineering Technology and CADD program at the BTC, and
  • to serve as a supplementary resource for students, inventors, professional organizations and other higher education institutions who use MCC’s FabLab.

When students were assigned a project to build a steam engine prototype, they modeled and assembled each part digitally in a parametric modeler and then the whole steam engine was prototyped and physically put together. The physical model is shown here with the digital rendering of the project.

The Prototyping Lab consists of six different prototyping machines, including both additive and subtractive technologies, three-dimensional scanning capabilities, and all model finishing tools and supplies. All projects, whether educational or for external organizations and individuals, are worked on by both students and the Prototyping Lab faculty and staff.

 

The distinction between the two labs, says engineering technology and CADD program coordinator and Prototyping Lab manager William Allyn, is each labs’ primary use.

“The Prototyping Lab is more directly related to an academic program (Engineering Technology/CADD) while the FabLab is currently a stand-alone endeavor,” said Allyn. “Also, given the expense of the equipment and materials, the Prototyping Lab is not designed to be as openly accessible as the FabLab. Generally, most Prototyping Lab users are students under the supervision of faculty or lab technicians, while use of the FabLab is available on a subscription basis.”

 

The MCC Rapid Prototyping Lab’s Alaris prototyping machine is hard at work here creating an MCC logo to be used on a piece of furniture in the lab. The logo was modeled digitally, prototyped and then finished with common and specialized painting tools and equipment.

HISTORY

MCC’s rapid prototyping capabilities began in 2004 with the acquisition of a 3D printer/rapid prototyper. This machine was a powder/binder type and was initially used by one of the advanced CADD courses to produce physical counterparts to the electronic models that were being created in the course.

In 2006 MCC acquired two more prototypers which built models from plastic. These two “workhorse” machines began to reveal the possibilities of enhancing innovation by providing quick, accurate and usable parts directly from a CADD model. This technology was incorporated into multiple advanced CADD courses and students began designing models and prototypes for purposes outside of classroom assignments.

2007-2008 saw the first projects with an external audience. MCC students who had graduated and gone on to pursue bachelor’s degrees in engineering returned to use the technology for senior-level projects. Additionally, a local company had single-run prototypes created, allowing MCC students to participate in real-world projects.

In 2009 a prototyper capable of an accuracy of +/- .003 (in other words, super-duper precise) became the newest piece of prototyping equipment. Two area inventors worked with MCC students to produce prototypes and drawings of concepts that went on to become candidates for patents.

2009-2010 also saw the inclusion of 3D scanning into the rapid prototyping. This technology was incorporated into the coursework and was also used by an area inventor and an MCC student to produce viable electronic models to speed the process of design validation.

In late 2010, prototyping and related equipment was consolidated, along with appropriate model finishing tools and supplies, into one lab, now known as the MCC Rapid Prototyping Lab.

Prototyping Lab manager William Allyn refers to these Dimension Stratasys prototyping machines as the lab’s workhorses. The machines, which are capable of an impressive accuracy of +/-.007 in., produce a model out of ABS plastic based on an electronic file created in a CADD or modeling software package.

With the launch of MCC’s new FabLab in 2011, the Prototyping Lab became a more open resource for FabLab members, which include both students and non-student inventors, entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Work with area inventors and small companies interested in one-off prototype runs increased and with that increase came additional opportunities for students to get involved with the development of new products.

A multi-color prototyper and the first subtractive prototype was made available with the addition of the Roland mill. Material capabilities have expanded beyond ABS plastic and now include resin, plaster, brass, copper, wood and aluminum.

PROJECTS OF NOTE

  • Students have participated in 1 patent and 2 patent-pending designs using the prototyping and modeling capabilities available in the Prototyping Lab
  • 3 additional projects are currently underway involving 1 project that is already patented and 2 that have the eventual goal of obtaining patents
  • FabLab and Prototyping Lab faculty and staff assisted Hallmark in the establishment of the company’s LeAP Lab, an on-site resource for Hallmark employees to explore and innovate using an array of creative and manufacturing technologies
  • 4 senior-level projects from the UMKC school of engineering have utilized expertise and equipment to complete designs
  • Students from UMKC’s Bloch School of Management have used equipment and expertise in the Prototyping Lab to complete design projects for their chosen idea
  • Multiple small companies have established relationships with the Prototyping Lab and used equipment and expertise in the development of prototypes for new or improved products

LEARN MORE

For more information about MCC’s Rapid Prototyping Lab or FabLab, contact William Allyn.

IN THE NEWS

MCC’s FabLab was the main attraction on the June 21 edition of Central Standard, a popular talk show on KCUR 89.3, Kansas City’s National Public Radio station. The show featured interviews with MCC FabLab experts Vince Thompson and Steve Dowell. Host Jabulani Leffall talked with Thompson and Dowell about both the FabLab, which is located at MCC-Business & Technology, and the Maker Faire KC, an inventors’ fair held last weekend at Union Station.

Click here to listen to the Central Standard segment.

Click here to learn more about the FabLab.

Click here to visit the FabLab’s page on mcckc.edu.

Click here to connect with the FabLab on Facebook.

Click here to learn about this weekend’s Maker Faire.