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Where ideas become reality: FAB LAB

When I was a design student, we had access to 3D printers, laser cutters, and industrial-sized print plotters. Once graduation hit, it was time to kiss all those dream tools goodbye.

Then I heard about a place somewhere on campus called the “Fab Lab,” short for “fabrication laboratory,” (or as I’d like to call, “fabulous lab”). All I was told was the lab was open to students and the community, so I knew I had to check it out.

On my first visit to the Fab Lab, I was greeted by Colten Jackson, one of Fab Lab’s employees and key engineers. He showed me around the space and all the tech tools the lab had. It was incredible: everything you need to make just about anything. The lab was stacked with a laser engraver, electronic cutters, 3D printers, textile machines, milling equipment and other amazing tools.

Meet Colten: maker/engineer/Fab Lab keeper… he’s modeling the glasses he designed and fabricated right at the Fab Lab.

For instance, visitors could use an Xbox Kinect to scan and print themselves in 3D. In the corner was a graduate student’s project to re-engineer the smartboard, also utilizing the Kinect– as an effort to make the smartboard more affordable and user-friendly. The lab was full of computer-driven tools, but more importantly it was bustling with ideas.

Hot off the 3D printer!: Some objects made by Fab Lab creators

After the lab tour, I met Jeff Ginger, the lab operations manager. Immediately, I asked how a place like this could even exist. “We are 50% community and 50% university,” Jeff explained, “that’s one of the unique things about us, we serve both university units and community through public engagement.”


Jeff Ginger (far right) with a few other Fab Lab members operating a CNC machine

Fab Lab in Champaign-Urbana is a part of a larger network of Fab Labs that started at MIT. I was surprised to find out there are Fab Labs throughout the world. “We could chat with another Fab Lab if you’d like,” Jeff offered, pointing out a webcam on top of a shelf, “although the Lab in Alaska doesn’t have an internet connection yet.”

The Lab is for the community and university while also being funded by a combination of sources, including the Office of the Chancellor, Public Engagement, grants, unit support, gifts and donations. The space draws in a versatile and diverse group of people. There are graduate students that conduct research, visits from youth organizations like the girl scouts or partner organizations like Tap In Leadership Academy, or artists that want to experiment with a medium, and so on. “In the way libraries make books available for the public, we make technology available,” explained Colten, “no one could afford a laser cutter on their own, but if it’s shared– everyone benefits from it. And you get to work with other people versus working by yourself. It’s collaborative.”

Public engagement is also important to Fab Lab. While being active in the lab space, Fab Lab also does community outreach by being available at the Urbana Free Library for teens. The goal is to give the students a means to be innovative and creative: projects range from video production, music recording, to playing Minecraft and Super Smash Brothers. While we were chatting about the Teen Lab, I noticed a bright pink cityscape being printed on a 3D printer. “That’s actually the city the kids made on our Minecraft server,” Jeff said, “just before the city got covered in sand.”

 So what’s next for Fab Lab? While it’s grown considerably since it started in 2009, Fab Lab has plans to expand in space, gear, and its audience. With goals to do even more public engagement projects all around the town and state, there are big ideas in motion at the lab. They also plan to work more actively with units in the university to offer more classes, open workshop time and consulting for researchers.

If you are in need of some serious fabrication tools or inspiration, be sure to visit the CU Fab Lab. The lab is open to anyone in the Champaign-Urbana community. Lab use is free, and they sell materials on site. Fab Lab sells materials at-cost and accepts donations for machine upkeep, but their goal is to be as affordable and accessible as possible.

They are located at 1301 South Goodwin Ave in Urbana, right across the street from the ACES library and greenhouses – look for the big logo on the door. Open hours for the public include:

Sunday 1-6 p.m.
Mondays 12-6 p.m.
Tuesday 6-9 p.m.
Thursday 12-9 p.m.

They also run workshops for organizations and groups of 12 or less, best suited for kids ages 10 and up. More information on the mini Fab Lab at the Urbana Free Library can be found on their website under “Teen Open Lab.”

For more information about the Lab, project samples, or the Teen Lab at Urbana Free Library, please visit: or find them on Facebook.

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