Inside San Diego’s fab lab

Engineer Dylan Drotman loves robots. He’s been building them for years — and he wants to share that love. His vision: a build-your-own robot kit for kids that would cost less than $500. Kids would assemble the parts, wire the robot, program it, and, in the process, learn about servos, LEDs, computer code and other tools of the high-tech trade.

To create his prototype, he went to San Diego’s fab lab and used design software to spec his parts, then cut them with a laser and designed and printed the circuitry.

“I could have done it without the lab, but I’d have had to outsource more, it would have taken longer, and been more expensive,” Drotman says. “Besides, I really appreciate the community of people here to discuss things with and get advice from. That makes a big difference to me.”

Andre Szucs, an athlete who lost his left leg below the knee, found that he needed two prosthetic limbs ­— one shaped for walking, another optimized for running. He created a new type of foot with a lever that allows him to adjust the height and angle of the prosthesis “on the fly” to suit either activity. (Running requires a little more height and a different angle than walking.)

But he needed something to protect flesh, fixtures, and furniture from the limb’s blunt edges and sharp corners. So he used San Diego’s fab lab to 3D-print a “fairing” — something like a fender — to fit his limb. Now he’s founded Gladius, a firm to manufacture his adjustable foot and custom-made fairings to fit others’ prostheses.

For now, he’s keeping his day job as a sales and marketing rep for a company that makes titanium bolts. But by May, he hopes to be marketing his own invention. “The fab lab had the equipment and the space, but the people here are accelerators,” he says. “They’re mentoring me through this process.”

Brendan Gaffney makes new tools for musicians and uses the lab to quickly prototype his ideas, including a musical keyboard shaped like a soccer ball with each facet sounding a different note. “When you can test a design very quickly at a very low cost, you can take more risks and be more innovative,” he says.

Gaffney came to the lab for its array of tools. He learned to build electronic circuitry, wound up teaching others, “and now I’m one of the people with a set of keys to the place,” he says.

Another element that keeps bringing him back is the “congregation of people with a variety of knowledge and specialties with their own slant on things but who are interested in collaboration. What happens in the spaces between those specialties can be really interesting.”

True to its social mission, the lab doesn’t charge a membership fee, only $5 to $30 an hour for the use of its machines. It also devotes a good portion of its efforts to working with schools and colleges. “Our aim,” says lab co-founder Katie Rast, “is to support education and economic development in our local communities.”

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