2013-01-10 / News

Met School taking next step in technology with 3-D printers

Islander Steve Heath is helping create Fab Lab

Anatoly Impagliazzo, 18, of South Kingstown, works with a vinyl cut at AS220 in Providence. Several Met School students and staff members are taking a Fab Lab class in advance of opening a Newport County laboratory next year. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE HEATH Anatoly Impagliazzo, 18, of South Kingstown, works with a vinyl cut at AS220 in Providence. Several Met School students and staff members are taking a Fab Lab class in advance of opening a Newport County laboratory next year. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE HEATH Newport County is about to gain a new tool to bring the next big idea to reality, according to Jamestown’s Steve Heath.

Heath is director of the Fabrication Laboratory – Fab Lab, for short – that is coming to the Met School in Newport. Fab Labs started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are spreading around the United States.

“One of the beautiful concepts is, it is an open-source movement,” he said. The Fab Lab offers free software and will make the training and equipment accessible to anyone in Newport County.

The Newport lab is set to open in February 2014, when the Met School’s new building is ready. In the meantime, the school is acquiring a 3-D printer and vinyl cutter. It will demonstrate the new technology at local schools and at libraries starting in March.

The 3-D printer does not exactly equate to desktop manufacturing, but it does potentially put manufacturing in every household. Kits start around $1,000, Heath said, and speculated that the printer might revolutionize the U.S. economy, much as computers ushered in the era of desktop publishing.

He explained the creative cycle as an additive and then subtractive process.

The printer is “additive,” he said, meaning it gives the basic model. 3-D printers use materials like plastic and steel to create a physical object from a computer file, such as a vector-based illustration or from computer-assisted design. Then, students use the vinyl cutter and milling machines, which are “subtractive,” to cut away the excess material.

“It’s going to be open to anyone,” he stressed. The Met School students and children from other schools will have a schedule to use the Fab Lab, and there will be afterschool programs and evening classes for community members. Heath said the Fab Lab organizers have also reached out to the Newport Skills Alliance to see how they can assist with jobs training.

The plan is to attract as many people as possible to collaborate and explore the possibilities. “We are hoping to become an intellectual sandbox,” he said.

Besides Heath, the Fab Lab organizers are Tom Kowalczyk of Middletown; Jim Reed from the Newport Housing Authority; Karen Conti, a strategic planning expert at Raytheon; Luke Randall, a Saunderstown artist; Kate Petrie, founder of the Jamestown Arts Center; Fuhana DiBiase, coordinator of the Science and Math Scholars project in the Jamestown school; Sara Atkins of Social Ventures Partners Rhode Island; and Jack Hubbard of Jamestown, a retired Textron employee who has expertise in steel manufacturing technologies with applications similar to the 3-D printer.

On Jan. 21, the Fab Lab organizers are holding a strategy session from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Middletown Police Department. Everyone is welcome, he said.

“Another thing we hope to tap into,” he said, “just to the north are 5,000 people employed in defense with high-technology skills, but in a secure environment that doesn’t allow for a lot of flow of human and intellectual capital.” The Fab Lab might help connect the defense community to the rest of Newport and lead to manufacturing innovations, he said.

“It could add a whole new level of innovation and expertise to manufacturing,” he said, “and we could see rejuvenation and excitement.”

Instead of a “big dirty operation,” Heath said manufacturing could become “clean, innovative and done on a smaller scale.” He said the workers, who have been “kind of cogs in a wheel,” could develop into participants in the creative process and the design.

But Heath, who teaches at the Met School, said the Fab Lab’s main focus will be educational.

“Often students are asked to sit in their seats and learn, and they don’t always see utility of what they’re learning,” he said. The Fab Lab should change that picture. When they see the 3-D copier work, they will be “instantly inspired to learn the software to control the machine to make the object,” he said. “Our young people are technically savvy, but in the digital world, they’re not necessarily makers.”

According to Heath, the students have been all about communications and texting, but the Fab Lab brings the youngsters to another level.

Mike Raposa, 15, of Tiverton, is one of the Met School students taking classes at the Fab Lab at AS220.

“It’s right up my alley,” Mike said. “I’ve always had an interest in technology and working a lot with computers. 3-D printers open up a lot of possibilities for me.”

Kaimen Blomgren, 17, of Bristol, is a senior at the Met School and is doing an internship at AS220’s Fab Lab. He has been working on electronics, he said. “I like to find out how things work, and I like to change them so they work better for me.”

Said Heath, “Students have the opportunity to make things and develop creative and technical skills.”

For adults, the applications are ideal for students, artists, designers and computer-technology professionals, but anyone who wants to learn the new technology can sign up for classes and start working.

The school will charge for materials, he said, using a model similar to the Jamestown Arts Center. Ideally, residents will come to the Fab Lab to learn the new technology, try it out, and then buy their own 3-D printer if they opt to start a business.

The van Beuren Charitable Foundation has contributed $25,000 for the Fab Lab, and the organizers hope to raise $200,000 by January 2014. He estimated $80,000 of that money would go for salaries, equipment and insurance.

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