Evan Malone played with a lot of Legos as a kid. Maybe that's what led him to founding NextFab Studio, a workshop space in West Philly that serves as a high-tech clubhouse for artists, designers, computer geeks, 3-D animators, inventors and engineering buffs. NextFab bills itself as a "gym for innovators."
At any given moment, NextFab members who've paid their $100 monthly fee and gone through the training sessions are busy designing, building and generally tinkering away the hours on some impressive, really high-tech equipment. Want to create a computer model of an object? Use their 3-D scanner. Want to go in the other direction and turn a digital facsimile into an actual hold-in-your-hand object? The computer-controlled milling machine can carve it out for you, or one of the wow-cool 3-D printers can build it for you layer by layer.
NextFab has a gallery-quality reproduction printer (which uses "ridiculously expensive ink," Malone notes), a digital embroidery/sewing machine and an injection-molding machine that makes small plastic doodads ("That's Walmart in a nutshell," Malone observes dryly). There's a room full of loud contraptions that will cut, weld, engrave and poke holes in metal, and make all kinds of other materials, from felt to wood, bend to your creative will. NextFab's four rooms can be a tight squeeze, but this is only a partial list of the techy tools there.
Robert Baruch, a software architect for Verizon, is at NextFab almost every weekend working on his pet project — a computer with no electronic components and powered by a steam engine. "So there's this steam-punk aspect to it," he says. All the other workshops he'd found in the city were just empty spaces for rent. But NextFab "had all the equipment," he notes. "I never really had the opportunity to build something complex because places like this didn't exist."
But why a mechanical computer? "It's a hobby," Baruch says with a grin. "It makes me happy. I come here to exercise a different type of creativity."
NextFab isn't just for hobbyists. "My vision for this place was for inventors to be able to go from a concept to an aesthetically pleasing product that they could show people," explains Malone.
Impressed by the place's "tremendous resources," Joyce Lee, a recent Penn graduate, joined NextFab a month ago. She's been using the computer-controlled laser cutter to make custom buttons, the digital embroidery/sewing machine for an upcycling clothing project, and both machines to make novelty calling cards. She's also taken advantage of their camera and lighting kit to photograph her work for a portfolio.
Malone — who as a graduate student at Cornell was involved in developing a 3-D printer — found the inspiration for NextFab in the small-scale manufacturing setups, called Fab Labs, developed by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld to give underprivileged communities the ability to create things they need. Using funding from the National Science Foundation, there are now about 60 Fab Labs in 18 countries, with the first ones in 2002 going to places such as rural India and Costa Rica. "It's the power of just providing access" to technology, says Malone.
Besides the membership aspect, NextFab provides contract services for product development, and it partners with the University City Science Center's Breadboard project to do education and community outreach in technology and arts. Recently, high school students from the West Philly EVX Team went to NextFab to 3-D-scan a car transmission.
Independent artist and designer Sharif Pendleton joined NextFab less than a week after it opened in January 2010. He found out about it "after Googling some crazy combination of words" that included Philadelphia, laser and crafts.
"Most of the projects I sell have actually been produced at NextFab or have some component that was created at NextFab," says Pendleton. For example, his acrylic jewelry and coasters were laser-cut there, and his packaging labels were printed there. Lately he's been testing how the laser engraver works on various types of materials for a series of monogrammed coasters. "You design differently once you learn the different tolerances of the machine," he says, "and once you learn how to not set things on fire."
NextFab will help conduct the Science Festival's Maker Field Day, featuring such challenges as speed soldering, paper-tower building and foam-car racing. Wed., April 20, 2-4:30 p.m., $5, Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St. Register online at makerfieldday.eventbrite.com. For more information on NextFab, visit nextfabstudio.com.