TRAVERSE CITY — Budding entrepreneurs with a brilliant idea may someday be able to create product prototypes at Northwestern Michigan College.
They could gather at what might be called a "makerspace" or an "innovation center" — essentially a campus gathering place where the public could use sophisticated technology equipment and software, now available to only students.
NMC Board Trustee Bill Myers proposed the idea at a recent board retreat at the Chateau Chantal winery.
Myers specifically talked about the college's 3-D printers and how they could be used to create prototypes of manufacturing parts or products.
“If people are not intimidated to do what it takes to create a business, we could have cottage businesses all over the place,” he said.
To illustrate the 3-D printer's capability, Myers passed around a realistic model of a large hand created with an NMC printer.
Such public design spaces have been set up all over the country. Mott Community College, for example, runs a FABLAB, open to small business people, entrepreneurs and students. People walk in with an idea and often walk out with a model or prototype, said Joe Pakkala, FABLAB’s senior program manager.
“What I have in my hand right now is a ‘twist and clip’ that holds your hair — what I used to call a bun,” said Pakkala in a phone interview. “The inventor took it to market and she’s selling them right now.”
Pakkala said inventors also made prototypes of a "teether" for babies and a door jam that locks a sliding door; those also are on the market.
Ed Bailey, NMC’s technical division director, provided a tour of Parson-Stulen Building on NMC's Aero Park Campus that houses the 3-D printers, lathes and much more.
“This idea is less about companies and more about individuals who have an idea for a project,” Bailey said. “There are a lot of people who are coming to us now who say, 'I have this idea, but I need to get it printed out on a 3-D computer to see if it’s actually viable.'”
Students now use several different rooms to map out and create their inventions, including the "hackerspace" for programming and a "makerspace" to construct their projects.
“I halfway live my life in makersbay,'” said student David Couturier, a sophomore from Lake Leelanau, who used a slightly different name. "We have access to all the electronics, all the tools, all in one place."
Couturier previously created a polymer platform to allow the attachment of a Go Pro video camera to a remote-contro iRobot. Chinese students from Dalian University of Technology tested out the iRobot -- without the Go Pro -- and happily zipped it around a cavernous room one day last week.
Rachel Jurik, a junior, said she drew the head of a golf putter on a computer; a high-end 3-D "printed" it out, a process that took about 10 hours.
"You can come up with any shape you want, even guns. You can print out any amount of parts and throw them together, as long as they fit," she said.
Allowing public access to the 3-D printer would require solving a number of issues, including liability, fees and rules. The "innovation center," as Bailey would like to call it, could open as early as fall.
"That's my hope," Bailey said. "The community has the need, but the priority has to be the students. We'll have to balance all of that."