What is makeLAB?

This feature first appeared in the February 24, 2011 issue of Metromode.

If you don’t know much about architecture or design, it’s a little hard to explain. And if you don’t know anything about the history of architecture, it’s not possible to understand just how groundbreaking Lawrence Tech’s new working digital fabrication lab is.

So that’s a good place to start.

“In the 19th century, architects were master builders,” says makeLab founder and assistant professor at Lawrence Tech Jim Stevens. “They would visualize a house, they would draw it, and then the architect would be very hands-on in the field. They were directing the build.”

Then, as Stevens explains it, the industrial revolution happened. While architects were still conceptualizing and drawing, the construction industry came along to do the building. While architects may still administer a project, they really don’t “make” anything anymore.

Enter digital fabrication to the field of architecture. Though the concept of using a tool such as a Computer Numeric Controlled (or CNC Machine) to digitally design and create a physical component has been around for decades, the prohibitive cost of the equipment had always kept it out of the hands of small architecture firms.

“The auto industry has produced and manufactured their products with a computer for years,” says Stevens. “They kind of look at us and say, ‘Yeah, duh. We’ve been doing this.'”

The difference is that the auto manufacturers have been using these machines to design one object — a screw, for example — and then digitally manufacturing hundreds or thousands of that identical part. The economies of scale made the formerly expensive tools more efficient. What Stevens wanted to do with the same machine was to design one object, like the arm of a chair, and then make just one of those objects to then build a totally unique chair — like a 19th-century architect might have done.

“Until recently a practicing design firm probably couldn’t afford to do this,” Stevens explains. “Now you can buy a CNC machine on Craigslist.”

Which is pretty much what Stevens did.

After ten years of working in his private architecture practice in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, Stevens and his wife exemplified the reverse brain drain by finding teaching jobs in Michigan and moving north in 2009. While his wife secured a position in Eastern Michigan’s art department, Stevens laced his Lawrence Tech interview with his dream to bring digital fabrication into a collegiate laboratory. LTU bit, but for his first two years the school wasn’t in a position to create such a lab — so Stevens did.

“I rented a space and purchased the equipment,” he says. “We ran our own lab independently for a year. The agenda was that we knew eventually we’d move that to Lawrence Tech.”

That happened last August with the opening of makeLab. The program is structured so the lab is both an arm of the university and a functioning non-profit, supported in part by LTU, donors, and also by income earned by the students’ projects on the market.

“It gives students real-world experience and the clients get a lot of talent and a lot of time for a really good value,” Stevens said.

Pandush Gaqi is a makeLab fellow and recent LTU graduate. For him, the opportunity to work in the digital fabrication lab is preparing him for his career, unlike any of his prior classes.

“I was in my last year and I really needed something extra to go out into the world with,” Gaqi says. “I heard about makeLab and I knew it was going to be something big.”

What he found was a totally new design medium that he could not only learn to use, but actually apply instantly in the marketplace. He also cites the exercise of working with team members, project managers, and real clients as wholly unique.

“It was eye opening for me because it was a time when no one was actually building things in the school,” he says. “Nobody really had a hands-on approach to design.”

The best way to understand how digital fabrication manifests itself in the makeLab is simply to see the students’ work. The projects vary from a shelf to a bench to a light fixture to wall, and yet none of these objects are as straightforward as they seem.

The bench, for example, was built by a team of students who were challenged to take an underutilized space in a hallway and repurpose it into a functional, social space with an object. What they designed and then built was one very long “bench” that begins on one end in the shape of a chaise lounge and progressively morphs into a stool – and every component of the bench is unique.

“It’s really more of a seating landscape than a bench,” says Stevens “They first designed 47 custom double-sided molds that they had to fabricate with the CNC machine, and each piece has something like a 100 invisible mills. Then, of course, it had to be absolutely precise.”

As cool as that sounds, the bench looks even cooler. And it’s functional, to boot. The bench itself was an in-house project, but many of the design challenges come to the students directly from clients with real needs.

MakeLab’s self-describing logo says, “design, make, reach, support.” While the students are doing the designing and making, they’re also expected to do the reaching and supporting. Stevens sees their services to clients as community outreach, a way to bring design together with human services. On makeLab’s poster, under the word “reach” reads:

“…we strive to be a creative resource to the community around us // we’re passionate about providing design where it may not otherwise be available or affordable…”

Stevens and his troupe of student designers are clearly excited about the future of their field with the new availability of digital fabrication. The question remains just how common their vision is among their peers. Is digital fabrication about to take the field by storm? Or is LTU doing a uniquely cool project?

Other digital fabrication labs are out there, that’s for sure. What isn’t clear is if anyone is doing exactly what makeLab is up to, combining student-led digital fabrication in the lab with community outreach.

“What I’m doing is a little bit different and I’m doing it on purpose,” he says. “There’s no way I’ll compete with a $5 million lab that only a few people can access. I’m interested in the relevance of this at a grassroots level. I’m interested in what we can do right now and make results.”

Such huge labs aren’t too difficult to find these days. Ball State University in Indiana has a digital fabrication lab called i.M.A.D.E., and a national leader in the field is as nearby as the University of Michigan.

The Taubman College’s “Digital Fab Lab” at U-M has been around for eleven years, spans more than 7,000 square feet and includes 12 advanced CNC machines. Among them is an abrasive waterjet CNC, which is one of two such university-owned machines nationwide.
The lab is one of the top three in the US and does some pretty amazing stuff with the world’s must cutting edge equipment. But it does not share MakeLab’s focus on community outreach.

“There are also schools like Auburn University and Studio 804 in Kansas,” Stevens adds. “They have students going out and bringing good designs to the masses but they are not using digital in those programs. Right now it’s usually one or the other.”

He doesn’t believe it will be long before more labs like his begin to spring up, however, particularly as his students take their passion for the model out into the marketplace.

“With this type of equipment we’ve now democratized manufacturing,” he says. “No longer do you have to have a 100,000-square-foot facility if you want to manufacture something.”

“The students I have right now who are building things, it’s their job as young entrepreneurs to define what that is in the market. It’s not my job as a professor to predict that. It’s the students who will define that.”

For Gaqi, at least, it’s pretty clear how he’d like to see digital fabrication define his career, and just how dramatic he sees its entrance into his field.

“The platform has changed in design,” he says. “There were much more rigid rules of design before. We have a broader scope. Taking that into the field we can design things that are more efficient and economical.”

While efficiency and economy may simply make life more convenient for some clients, Gaqi, who moved to Michigan with his family from Albania when he was 13, sees a greater purpose to the benefit of design by digital fabrication than convenience.

“Adaptive reuse of things is deeply in my culture,” he says. “If someone had a makeLab over there, there would be a great demand for it. I’ve already thought about starting [a business like makeLab] that would be international.”

The motto of makeLab is, simply, “make good things.” Now in just its second semester, the project seems to be the start of something in Southeastern Michigan that has the potential to make good things happen around the globe.

Natalie Burg is a writer who loves to say good things about
downtowns, communities, and the people who believe in making them
amazing. Her previous article was “Building a Cultural Bridge”.

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