Catonsville Fab Lab adds dimension to digital fabrication

The din coming from the high-tech Fab Lab in the HTEC building on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County was nearly deafening last week.

Under the watchful eyes of Jason Hughes protected by safety glasses, a silvery geometric pattern slowly emerged on a shiny black sheet of zinc.


The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, graduate student watched as the machine, a CNC (computer numerical control) router roughly the size of a dining room table, created little squares and rectangles.

Lisa Moren, a UMBC professor of visual arts, monitored the progress of what is essentially a giant code that can be scanned by a smart phone.


The zinc sheet is part of her project, a series of prints that connect QR codes with landscapes in Australia she entitled "e-LAND."

Inside the Fab Lab, a nonprofit project of CCBC's Technology and Innovation in Manufacturing and Engineering (TIME) Center, is an impressive array of the latest tools, including four 3D printers of varying resolution quality, a 3D scanner, laser cutters and that loud router. There are also computers loaded with the software to run all this cutting-edge technology.

It isn't for students only. Any inventor or tinkerer with an idea is welcome to come in to the Fab Lab and use the equipment to bring his concept to life.

The facility is the only such digital fabrication  lab in Maryland open to the public, according to Ken Burch, the TIME Center's director.


Interest in the Fab Lab is growing, according to Kelly Zona, the Fab's Lab's director. She estimates an average of eight to 10 people a day use the lab. "Some days, it's dead. Some days, we're overwhelmed with people," she said.

Most users are from the community, but as CCBC faculty incorporate the lab into the course work, interest from the school's own students is growing.

The Fab Lab — short for fabrication, not fabulous — actually is considered rather fabulous by the creative people who come here to use it.

Moren said she has been impressed by the staff and the tools available.

"Where else can you get access to so much technology in such a walk-in, friendly way?" she asked.

Bill Hermann took the introductory class when the center first opened four years ago and got hooked immediately.

"You do the dreaming and it becomes reality in here," said Hermann, a retired technology teacher who worked at Johnnycake Middle (now Southwest Academy) and Pine Grove Middle schools.

The Relay resident has created several projects, including glasses he etched to commemorate his nieces' births.

On another set of glasses, the proud member of the Relay Improvement Association etched the words "Historic Relay, Maryland."

Sometimes, the results of a user's work are immediately usable. There are the vinyl signs hanging around the lab and a two-toned wooden electric guitar created by Zona.

Other items are just one step in the creation of a final product.

A small orange piece of plastic resting on the 3D printer, for instance, doesn't look like anything. But to its designer, it's part of a helmet.

Burch, a Catonsville resident, noted the facility already has its success stories. A county resident tired of losing lens caps when he was out photographing, came up with an idea of a lens cap holder that could be attached to a camera strap.

He's sold over $25,000 worth of holders, Burch said.

Some creations are in the gee-whiz realm. Zona said there's growing interest in electronic components, such as the micro-controllers she used to create a musical color sensor. Run the gizmo over colors and it reacts by playing different notes to each color to make music.

As Burch explained, a drafting student may create an item in his CAD (computer assisted design) program, come into the Fab Lab to create a prototype, then take that model to be manufactured.

Adam Drutz knows about the lab's abilities firsthand. A CCBC interior design student, he has spent hours there working on projects for class.

"I use it for school a lot," said the Reisterstown resident.

He used to spend long hours cutting matte board with a razor-sharp X-Acto knife for his interior design boards. Now he counts on the high-tech tools of the lab.

"It looks very professional and it takes a quarter of the time it would take cutting it out by hand," he said.

Drutz is currently in Israel and traveling with him is a scrapbook he bound himself from a single sheet of wood.

He left an early attempt behind in the Fab Lab. Made from a thin sheet of wood, the binding bends easily along the spine thanks to a "living hinge," a series of slits cut into the wood by a laser cutter.

He finished the cover with fine etchings. But the size was slightly off, so he had to create another one, and left the first at the lab.

The living hinge, however, was a success — and something he has used for other projects, as well. "You can do so much with it," he said in an interview via Skype.

Drutz said he will return to the lab during the spring semester to create a headboard for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Decorator Showhouse.

Zona said she first learned how to use these high tech tools as an student in the architecture program at SUNY Buffalo  and later as a grad student at Cornell. She later used them to build a guitar at Sinclair Community College in Ohio. The lab there focuses on guitar building.

She learned to cut and sand the wood and complete all the steps to make the guitar.

"I take credit for a certain amount of the work," she said. "A huge amount of it goes to the people out there."

First-time visitors to the lab may be dazzled by the technology or intimidated by the tech-speak.

So, says Mollye Bendell, the lab's manager, she'll help whomever walks in with an idea.

"I won't do it for you," she warned. "I want people to really know how to do it."

Bendell teaches a course to introduce all of the tools and their abilities.

She and Zona teach additional three-hour sessions of instruction on each piece of equipment.

A National Science Foundation grant enabled the creation of the lab for students, inventors and entrepreneurs, according to Burch, the former principal at the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science.

It is one of more than 100 Fab Labs worldwide collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which provides advice and resources.

That network of Fab Lab participants connect regularly through an online teleconferencing system to collaborate to solve problems and share ideas, he said.

"There's so much interest and attention on 3D now," said Michael Raphael, CEO of a high-tech 3D scanning company, Direct Dimension,  located in Owings Mills.

Raphael served on an advisory board to establish the lab.

"These Fab Labs are all over the world. They can have different flavors," he said, explaining that other labs focus on electronic design, photography or woodworking. "We talked about what the local Baltimore area was missing."


Four years later, the lab has become an integral part of CCBC programs, including engineering and manufacturing technician training, interior design and art, Burch said.


It has attracted graduate students from UMBC as well as about 20  Baltimore County Public School teachers and faculty from Stevenson University and UMBC.

There are new endeavors in the works as well.

CCBC will host a conference for the United States Fab Lab Network in April.

The lab will be the centerpiece for new classes and ultimately a degree program, as well, according to Bendell, who said she and Zona are working on the curriculum now.

Zona said there's always a demand for workshops as soon as they are announced. "We can't keep up with demand," she said. "People want to learn."

She has been also been in talks with area galleries about a possible exhibit of items produced in the lab. "It's one of our goals to have a Fab Lab show," she said.

"Having the Fab Lab gives people the tools and resources to create the prototypes to show investors and businesses or start and grow a business," Raphael said.

The lab is open to the public several days during the week.

Just as there are fees for using a public photocopier, these have fees, too. Printing on a 3D printer costs $7 to $10 a cubic inch, for example.

Hours, lab fees which run about $5 a visit, and the reservation forms necessary for some tools are posted on the website, http://www.fablabbaltimore.org.

This story has been updated.