Endless possibilities

Fab Lab Tulsa Inc., a community resource for rapid prototyping of fabricated products, will move to its own facility in March.




President Matt Norris, Manager Josh Moseby and board member Frank Mulhern are three of the forces behind Fab Lab Tulsa Inc., an MIT fabrication laboratory where community members can build almost anything.

When community members visit one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Fab Labs (short for Fabrication Laboratories), they need only bring one thing: an idea.

In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Fab Lab users realized the local hospital and university lacked high-speed Internet access. So they used Fab Lab equipment, low-cost building materials and off-the-shelf network routers to create FabFi, transmitting high-speed, wireless Ethernet signals several miles to those institutions.

In Ghana, a young girl was frustrated that when she visited her local market, she never knew whether the milk she was purchasing was good quality or watered down. So she visited the local Fab Lab and created her own milk tester.

“Those are the two most powerful examples of people being empowered to use technology to make their lives better,” says Matt Norris, president of Fab Lab Tulsa Inc.

Incorporated as a nonprofit organization in summer 2010, Fab Lab Tulsa Inc. has been operating temporarily in The Collaboratorium, an entrepreneurial resource center, and will move to its own facility in March.

The Fab Lab concept began as an MIT class focused on rapid prototyping, says Josh Moseby, manager of Fab Lab Tulsa.
“It’s basically a small workspace that has computers running easy-to-use design software (connected) to fabrication machines you can use to make almost anything,” he says.

In 2001, MIT decided to expand Fab Lab into a community outreach project, first creating labs in developing countries and later expanding to more than 40 locations on five continents.

The Fab Lab Tulsa team began to come together in 2008 when Norris, a Spirit AeroSystems Inc. employee, learned about the Fab Lab concept from a colleague who had visited Neil Gershenfeld, a professor at MIT and the founder of Fab Lab.

Norris says he was immediately intrigued with the concept and thought it would be a natural fit with the emerging entrepreneurial spirit in Tulsa.

“Tulsa used to be the oil capital of the world,” he says. “I think we should be the capital of something else again.”

The Community Action Project of Tulsa County first oversaw the group, funding a visit to MIT and southeast Boston’s Fab Lab. By early 2009, Kendall-Whitter Inc., a nonprofit organization serving the residents of the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood, sponsored Fab Lab Tulsa. In October 2009, Fab Lab made its official debut at a public unveiling at the Kendall-Whitter Educare facility.

By late 2009, the Fab Lab team had secured enough funding to purchase the lab’s initial equipment, and in March 2010, Fab Lab Tulsa hosted a business summit for more than 100 inventors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and patent attorneys.

“Tulsa used to be the oil capital of the world. I think we should be
the capital of something else again.” – Matt Norris

Now, Fab Lab Tulsa Inc. is on the verge of opening a 3,600-square-foot facility at 710 S. Lewis Ave., the Hardesty Center for Fab Lab Tulsa. The 50th Fab Lab in the United States, it will serve the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood and the Tulsa region.

Moseby says the lab will cater to three audiences: the education sector, the community and entrepreneurs/small businesses.

While the idea for Fab Lab originated at MIT, individual labs can tailor their services to meet local needs. Fab Labs worldwide are also encouraged to share experiences and advice with one another, Moseby says.

“This has been a movement, and Fab Labs kind of take on a character of their own, wherever they’re put,” he says. “In Afghanistan it’s done a lot in the way of community development. … And then you have places like the United States and Europe where … it’s still helping out as far as community development, but additionally, it’s also helping out in the way of education and entrepreneurship.”

When the new facility opens, it will eventually include up to four staff members but also rely heavily on volunteers, who will assist lab users with using the software and equipment. Community members can use the lab for free, although memberships will be available, allowing for more exclusive access to the equipment, which includes a laser cutter, vinyl cutter, 3D milling machine, 3D printer and electronics workbench. Lab users are also encouraged to download free open-source software so they can design projects at home and visit the lab to create them.

Moseby and the Fab Lab Tulsa board are overflowing with ideas to connect the community with the lab. They would like to work with neighborhood associations to discern their needs and encourage lab users to create projects to meet those needs. They are also talking with Tulsa Public Schools officials about ways to integrate the lab with science education.

Frank Mulhern, a Fab Lab Tulsa board member, says the lab provides an opportunity for community members to help one another by bringing their ideas — from home projects to educational tasks to artistic creations to commercial products — to life.

“The users of the lab — the people in the community — realize this is a huge need and then they can take their ideas and their thoughts and what they want to make happen and they have a place to do it now,” he says. “I think that’s a good story of how easy it is, so to speak, to actually make something happen.”

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