Stoking the creative fires: NextFab & its kind give the communal-workshop a high-tech makeover

Malone co-invented this 3D printer that can build objects from all sorts of materals fed into it.    
Malone co-invented this 3D printer that can build objects from all sorts of materals fed into it.     (Photos: SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 29, 2012

EVAN MALONE had it good. His grandfather, Daniel Malone, an engineer for RCA/GE and later a maker of military systems and parts, had a workshop in his home "with all kinds of deadly stuff I tinkered with as a child. That's where I first caught the engineering bug."

Today, Evan Malone is doing unto others with NextFab Studio, a marvel of a shared workspace and prototyping station loaded with high-tech machinery, insights and enthusiasm.

Now celebrating its second anniversary in a ground-floor space at the University City Science Center, NextFab has proven so popular it's about to expand into a second location on the west side of Washington Avenue "five times as big," shared Malone last week.

And while maybe the most visible, NextFab is but one of several bustling   “makers spaces”  making a noise locally   –  others include  Hive 76, Philadelphia Woodworks, Indy Hall, Ventureforth, Hactory and the soon-coming Philadelphia Game Lab and 3rd Ward.  All are workshops/incubators  where tools and ideas can be shared, where artists, craftspeople, programmers and inventors can dream the dream – turn a sketch on a napkin into a working and maybe sellable product with a little help from their friends.

"There's a big group of tech-savvy people in Philadelphia who never had a way to expose their talent," noted Itsuki Ogihara, a young artist who came to Philly from Japan for graduate studies and recently joined the NextFab Studio team. "Now there are places like this opening almost every week. It's the support system we've been looking for, cutting the cost of entrepreneurship. It's a very positive thing and a significant trend."

Some set of tools

On a recent visit to NextFab (the doors at 3711 Market St. are almost always open for drop-in tours), I got to gawk at maybe a million dollars worth of high-tech, heavyweight industrial machinery and work stations that people can come in and learn how to use (safely) to make their visions come true.

Or, "if you're a budding designer or start-up with more money than time," you can let NextFab's in-house team go to work on the concept, "to build you a prototype or 10," said Malone. "Beyond that number, we're not cost efficient. You'd want to set up an assembly line elsewhere."

In the spanking-clean, air-filtered wood shop, I got to talking with one of NextFab's newest members, Ed Anderson, a Lansdale guy who joined up (at the $79-a-month individual membership fee) to build a few guitars using NextFab's "amazing array" of woodworking and computer-aided design tools. While Anderson is carving the first instrument largely by hand, subsequent models may be traced from his original and shaped from a big block of wood with laser scanners and magical, automated carving equipment capable of cutting in three dimensions.

"I'm making the guitars out of a wood called Purple Heart and planning to give a few to returning war veterans who've been messed up in combat," said Anderson, wearing his own Marines history on his T-shirt.

In another room I found sculptor Elisabeth Nichols, one of several artists-in-residence at NextFab on a grant from muraLAB, a collaboration between the Mural Arts Project and the nonprofit University City arts-meets-technology instigator Breadboard.

Nichols has been using laser engravers and thermoforming tools to build multicolor plastic sculptural models, "a series for outdoor public spaces in Fishtown that are intended to draw you down to the riverside park," Nichols said. Some pieces will feature solar panels that "store energy during the day, then illuminate the space at night."

He's a doer, too

Evan Malone is actually co-inventor of a 3D printer, called Fab@Home, that is another popular NextFab tool. It's also something that anyone with a tinkerer's nature can build and deploy "because I made it from off-the-shelf parts and offer the schematics online [] as an open-source [royalty-free] design," he shared.

Besides its unusually low parts cost ($1,200) and free access, this 3D printer stands alone because it can build up objects, layer upon layer, from "whatever material you can push through its syringe - from peanut butter to silicone," said the inventor.

Malone likes to show off Fab@Home at parties, making "sculptural hors d'oeuvres out of hummus." But he sees its true future "making replacement body parts - from bladders to replacement knees - from a paste of living cells. And since the parts would be made from the patient's own tissue, the replacements go into the body without the need for immunosuppressant drugs. I've held on, with Cornell University, to a patent for the medical application. We should see it being used within the next 10 years, after finally getting through the FDA testing process."

NextFab Studio's most lucrative contract work is for local companies developing prototype medical equipment. "I'm not at liberty to talk about these products," said Malone. "We get involved in everything from etching the circuit boards to designing and constructing the aesthetically pleasing packaging."

Has he ever thought about investing in one of these gizmos? "I've thought of trading an equity share for our development input and labor. But frankly, we need the income."

And in truth, this 41-year old isn't cut from exactly the same cloth as his granddad or his father, John C. Malone. While also an engineer by training, Evan's dad is far better known as an "entrepreneur and financial wizard," noted his offspring. Early in adult life, the senior Malone worked in Philadelphia for Jerrold Electronics, a pioneer manufacturer of "community antenna" [cable TV] gear run by future governor Milton Shapp. Sniffing the future, John Malone moved on to become one of the nation's leading cable system and channel developers.

Fire starter

Helping to kindle the creative fire in other, would-be tech wizards is where Evan Malone's passions lie. "Like the artists who make beautiful lighting fixtures here," he said, or the student crew from Masterman coming in later that day to work on their entry for a robot competition.

"Between college [Penn] and grad school [Cornell], I spent time in South Africa and got to see what a difference it could make in students' lives - how they could instantly 'get it' when you introduced them to tools and concepts," Malone said. "A big part of my mission in setting up NextFab is to teach people how to make stuff. We're kind of forgetting very rapidly how to do that in the United States, because we're 'off-shoring' so much production.

"At NextFab, we're showing people that the cost of labor isn't everything. Creativity can win the day if you use automated tools to compensate. And we can leverage the creativity which historically has been America's strong suit, thanks to the diversity of our population. I can talk about that theme all day. It's what my doctoral thesis was all about."

Lucky for us.