Part of the process of localizing an economy involves bringing the manufacturing operations out of the goliath-scaled factories, and into regions where community members can actually get involved. We had the opportunity to visit a facility where exactly that is happening.
At 20th and Washington in South Philly is an unassuming storefront that, from the looks of the exterior, could house a traditional textiles company, or a flooring business or any other unremarkable industrial operation. But inside is NextFab – a cross between a high-tech workshop, a classroom and a tinkerer’s laboratory. The result is a playground for people with ideas.
Huge machines are everywhere. But unlike normal factories, NextFab’s environment is intended to be hands-on. Several small businesses operate out of the building, but the space is typically used a collaborative co-working facility – individuals or teams can rent access to the place on a monthly, daily or hourly basis, and make use of many of the industrial-scale machinery for their own projects.
Some of the equipment is what you’d find in a high-school woodshop class. Some cut and bend steel. Some of them shoot laserbeams. Yes, frickin’ laserbeams.
Then there’s an entire electronics lab. If you’ve been meaning to wire up a circuit board but just can’t get the soldering right on that workbench in your basement, this is the place for you.
Classes were in full effect during our visit. A unique blending of software and hardware under one roof means students can experiment with any phase of the building process – from idea creation to prototyping to actual production.
NextFab is tapping into a community of “makers”. This is the new breed of engineers, that take a drawing on a piece of paper and turn it into a thing you can hold, use and appreciate. What happens in between is basically what happens at NextFab.
What were we doing there, by the way? Well, the machines below intrigued us. They’re 3D printers – tiny factories in a box. They take a substance (think of it as melted plastic), and layer by layer, build out a 3D…thing. It allows for a new a new level of accessibility in the manufacturing process. This system doesn’t require tens of thousands of dollars dedicated to steel molds – it’s a simple as using a desktop computer, and ideas are brought to life.
But we weren’t here just to see the 3D printers, shiny as they are. We have an idea or two we’re playing with and if we told you any more, we’d have to very politely request that you didn’t tell anyone. Here’s the part where we ask you to stay tuned for an indeterminate amount of time when finally we’ll reveal our Hyperloop Regeneration Capacitor. Annnd we’ve said too much.