Tacoma venture makes access to high-tech equipment affordable to those with big ideas
By David Guest
Tacoma Daily Index editor
“We don’t make anything anymore.”
– Donald Trump, October 2015
There has been a perception that America’s manufacturing sector has been in decline for decades. While it’s true that a great number of consumer goods purchased by American’s are made overseas, there is a thriving entrepreneurial movement that continues to innovate and manufacture products in the United States.
When Billy Davis and Steve Tibbitts founded FabLab Tacoma four years ago, they had one goal in mind: Put high-tech tools and the training needed to use them within arm’s reach of those with an idea and they will build things. While an individual may not be able to afford a machine that can bring their ideas to physical reality, a collective of like-minded people can.
FabLab Tacoma is a membership-based enterprise that owns a variety of machines that can be used by its paid membership to produce a limitless assortment of products. Members can use 3D printers, welders, laser cutters, computer numerical controlled (CNC) routers and plasma cutters, lathes, saws, sanders and other equipment to turn ideas into objects.
“My main objective was creating tech jobs in Tacoma and growing the tech viability here in our community,” managing director Tibbitts said. “Anybody with a good idea and a little money can use the 3D printer or laser cutter and put together their prototype.”
A month-to-month membership at FabLab is $125, with discounts available for yearly, student, family and military members. The fee grants access to FabLab equipment and workspaces (with some time limits on the more popular laser cutters, CNC router table, and plasma table), which is available six days a week with hours extending into the late evening. Classes and workshops to train users on equipment operation and software are also available, for a fee, to members and non-members alike.
And like its members who are always innovating and creating, FabLab Tacoma aims to keep up with emerging technologies to benefit members and the larger community of makers.
“We just added another laser cutter, so we try to expand and bring in new technology as needed, said Snow Winters, FabLab’s social media coordinator and project manager. “We want to be as cutting edge as possible. We’re trying to add the latest technologies. We’ve got a couple of new 3D printers. We’re starting a VR (virtual reality) production facility. We are always adding new things.”
One of the new 3D printers will feature the ability to deposit layers of carbon fiber, allowing members to create super-tough parts that can be used in a variety of products.
A large number of FabLab’s members are students from the nearby University of Washington Tacoma campus. Some students receive a free membership to enhance their work in certain computer engineering and fabrication classes.
Other members are taking advantage of FabLab’s facilities to launch businesses. Equipment at FabLab allows members an inexpensive way to develop prototypes and demonstrate the feasibility of their ideas without having to invest in their own equipment. The collective learning environment can also help members solve problems and make connections that may prove to be beneficial when they are finally able to launch their products.
Tibbitts is an electrical engineer with a degree from Washington State University, while business partner Davis holds a degree in business management and marketing from Pacific Lutheran University. Both work actively with members, teaching courses and offering advise on engineering, software, design and production.
“We’ll bring people in, train them up, they’ll go to town on it (their product) then they’ll launch their own business, Tibbitts said. “It’s a catalyst for tech business creation. Sometimes I call it an incubator on steroids. We’ve had a dozen companies spin out of here already, some successful, some not, but its really encouraging and probably the thing that that I’m most proud of.”
FabLab Tacoma recently announced that it has become a founding member of Nation of Makers (www.nationofmakers.us), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting education and entrepreneurial efforts in manufacturing and technology, specifically to give access to spaces, tools and provide support to individuals who want to toss aside the myth – and build something in America.
1938 Market Street Tacoma, WA 98402
253-426-1267 | www.fablabtacoma.com