Like Willy Wonka’s imaginative machine that churned out chunky chocolate bars, University of Florida’s Arts and Architecture Fabrication Lab creates products out of thin air.
A knob for a washing machine. A rat helmet for brainwave research. One hundred and fifty origami cranes.
In a cramped, windowless room tucked away in the University of Florida’s architecture building, the printers don’t just put words on paper. Ultramodern machines in UF’s A² Fab Lab can create jewelry, lamps and home décor. Abstract woodwork cut with hefty laser cutters decorate the walls. Miniature 3-D bridges and prototypes line the shelves.
Come fall, this lab will be uprooted. It is moving to Innovation Square, the new research-focused community on Southwest Second Avenue in Gainesville. Infinity Hall, an academic residential space designed for students with an entrepreneurial mindset, will house the printing collaborative within the Innovation Square community.
“We’re at this point where our capacity is maxed out here, both for the number of people we can fit in and tools and equipment we have,” said Mat Chandler, the lab director. The new area offers double the space the lab has now, allowing it to expand both capacities.
Assistant director Dave Lucas said the timing is right.
“I think it’s the natural evolution of the lab and the lab’s role on campus,” Lucas said. “The expansion is the inevitable growth. It just keeps growing and growing and growing.”
Right now, the lab has more than $500,000 in equipment: four 3-D printers, a 3-D scanner, three laser cutters and a computer numerical control router, a machine that cuts through materials like wood and plastics. Chandler said he wants to add two more 3-D printers, another 3-D scanner and a water jet, a machine that can cut through thicker materials such as metal and stone. The lab is currently applying for grants to help fund the new tools.
“We want to stay cutting edge,” Lucas said. “We can make things no one else can make.”
The lab was created by the College of Design, Construction and Planning in conjunction with the College of the Arts with a grant from the university’s Office of Research.
Chandler became the lab director in the fall of 2012, the same year the lab expanded beyond the two colleges to offer access to the entire UF campus and the greater Gainesville community. According to Chandler, the lab is partly funded by UF: The lab’s rent, insurance and initial cost of equipment are covered by the university.
To keep the lab running, Chandler has adopted what he calls a self-sustaining model. This includes varying membership fees for students and staff, depending on the equipment they want access to. Community members pay on a case-by-case basis, reliant on the specific project. This ranges from $15 per print to $140 per four-month subscription to use all the equipment, according to the lab’s website.
Like much of the maintenance, the physical move will be done in-house to save money. Most of the equipment can be moved by hand, except for the router, which must be moved by crane. Chandler estimates it will cost at least $10,000.
Aside from moving the router, “it’s going to be me and a pickup truck,” he said.
Chandler said he is also looking forward to the lab’s new innovative neighbors. He is open to cross-collaboration among different areas of interest, from architecture to dentistry to business.
“The idea is to attract people with a creative mindset that are really looking to do something,” he said. “We’re going to have all of this creative potential right on top of us.”
Francesco Ruberto, a visiting student from the University of Pavia in Italy, is one example of this cross-collaboration. The business Ph.D. candidate said he came to the U.S. to study digital fabrication labs because Italian counterparts are outdated.
However, because he is a business student, Ruberto struggled to find a place to study. Other labs only wanted help from engineering or architecture students, but Chandler saw the potential for an international perspective at UF.
“It’s not so easy to be accepted in some fab labs,” Ruberto said. “But for me, it’s interesting because in this way, it will be challenging because I will be learning.”
Even with the expansion, the directors haven’t lost sight of their primary goal.
“The one thing we always keep very, very careful of is that we are here to support the students and faculty research first and foremost, No. 1, no question about it,” Chandler said.
Although the lab is accessible to the public, he views outside projects as supplemental to UF research. Chandler and Lucas welcome the opportunity to work on projects with real-world clients and want the lab to remain accessible to everyone.
“Our doors are always open,” Lucas said. “We will work with you to help turn your dreams into reality.”