University of Texas – Arlington FabLab

utafablab-10The drive from Plano to Arlington is a bit daunting – they don’t call it a Metroplex for nothing – it proves to be a round-trip voyage of about 110 miles, past the original Six Flags theme park and the giant AT&T Stadium, home of the 4-and-11 Dallas Cowboys. The University of Texas as Arlington is located just south of downtown, where free 2-hour parking isn’t so hard to find. Still, it is a bit of a hoof deep into campus, past the Engineering Quad and the maze of other buildings to the central Library, the home of the UTA FabLab. Like in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, it’s open to the public, though have your Driver’s Licence ready; the library makes you stop at a check-in desk.

The creative space is tucked into the southwest corner of the first floor, just off to the right of the entrance. A large wheeled whiteboard serves as the OPEN/CLOSED sign for the space. It’s a little bit before noon, well into the swing of things; the board’s OPEN side is invitingly facing your way, between a few scattered study desks, though beyond a certain point off to the left, there’s just bare tile floor. Today, the entire south side of the building past the FabLab is ripped apart and cordoned off with black plastic sheeting, clearly for some impending renovation. Nearly a dozen people buzz about the well-used facility, the printers chugging away, and the vinyl and laser cutters are seeing steady use as well.

Daylight streams in abundance through the south-facing windows; so many shop floors are enclosed, and wholly lit by fluorescent tubes. This is easily the brightest space I’ve yet seen. Clever stickers and galleries of past works abound. Machined designs of all types, from building models to functional object lifts, printed as a whole piece. You even have your choice of material to ape that famous Vapourwave album cover from Macintosh Plus, “Floral Shoppe” — available in your choice of rustic wood veneer or wispy traces in glass. Welcome to the future!

utafablab-45The equipment is all the standard FabLab fare, though they have a sewing machine as a bonus, plus a little extra in the way of 3D scanning; There’s a static unit suitable for small objects, or a handheld 3D Sense “wand” that can capture human sized objects – like, say, a bust! You have to stay pretty still, and the optical pickup doesn’t quite deal with glasses. But there it is, 15MB of me!

Turns out, it’s actually a very auspicious time to visit this lab – over the next few weeks, half of the Library’s first floor will be renovated into the Fab Lab Expansion – home to all the woodworking and metalworking equipment they don’t yet have. Along with this, a second laser cutter is going into the southwest corner, right next to the existing one! As the lab grows, they’re contemplating adding a membership fee, but they have a commitment to keeping the space open to the public – the exchange of ideas is important to the health of any creative space, after all.

The FabLab isn’t just for making cool doodads, though. There’s serious research going on here, too! My tour host has actually been working on a Master’s Degree and is now starting on a Ph.D, all deeply related to the FabLab and its manufacturing technology. Of course, when you write your thesis and go straight into your dissertation, it’s not sent straight out, it’s on hold pending the rest of the work. So you’ll have to come back in a couple years to get the full white paper on the UTA FabLab, but you only have to wait until February to check out all the cool new stuff!