The Makerspace + Microfactory: A Swiss Army Knife of Epic Proportions

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant for The Graduate School.

“There is a vision of Cincinnati being a vital regional hub for ideas and manufacturing and making. We see ourselves being a catalyst in that.”

Makerspace 5

The 1819 Innovation Hub’s ground floor houses the Makerspace + Microfactory. This space is a goldmine of opportunities for university members to tap into. “The goal is to put the knowledge in the hands of the user,” says manager Ben Jones, who oversees the operations of the space. The Makerspace + Microfactory provides machines and technology that are capable of creating nearly anything the user could desire. Courses offered in the Makerspace + Microfactory give users a baseline knowledge of how to operate the tools and technology; from there, the user is unleashed. The space thrives on people who have the inventiveness to design something and the drive to see its creation through. 

Providing the Space for Unbridled Creation

Part of the Makerspace electronics area.

When you enter the Makerspace + Microfactory, you have two options: go right and enter the prototyping room, which is filled to the brim with 3D printers, sewing machines, electronics workstations, laser cutters, and large-scale Inkjet and vinyl printers all outfitted with their corresponding software; go left to enter the manufacturing side, which is home to a massive, industrial waterjet cutter – which has been used to help create vehicles for Hyperloop UC and Bearcat Motorsports – woodshop and welding workstations, a metals shop, and more. As Venture Lab’s director of startups, Grant Hoffman, puts it, “There’s almost nothing you can’t build with what’s down there today, it’s just unlocking that part of your brain that says, ‘I want to figure out how to do it’. What is really helpful is that all the classes you would take to learn this equipment are free. If you are a student, faculty, or staff, they are all free.”

Two people working together next to the 3D printing station

“We’re open to the entire university – so students, faculty, and staff – it doesn’t matter what discipline or college. We like to say we are discipline agnostic,” Ben says. This aversion to limiting the space to specific disciplines comes from the fact that innovation cannot occur in a vacuum; the space is meant to be an area for cross-pollination where people from different disciplines can come to learn from each other’s expertise.

Every college, including the branch campuses, is represented in the usership of the Makerspace + Microfactory. CEAS and DAAP students – whose work oftentimes requires the creation of functional representations of their projects – currently make up roughly 70% of users in the space. Ben says that they are trying to find ways to attract more users from other colleges, such as the College of Arts and Sciences, to challenge themselves to see what they are capable of creating. He highlights presentation materials for courses or conferences as areas of untapped potential. The Epson printer, for example, can make large, high-resolution prints on photo paper, adhesive vinyl (which can then be taken over to the vinyl cutter to create decals and stickers), banner material, canvas, and more. For perspective, Ben adds, “I can print a life size photograph of myself in 2 minutes.”

The electronics station at the Makerspace

The Makerspace + Microfactory is always looking to add more stations to the mix. User feedback is the primary means by which they discover what new technologies people want to access to. Recent additions include two new industrial-size 3D printers that print much larger pieces in extremely durable materials. Ben demonstrates their functionality by showing off a life-size, 3D printed pelvis bone that is made from durable, heat-resistant materials. In addition, the electronics area, which makes up a large portion of the prototyping side, is one that did not exist when the space opened. Ben says, “it demonstrated itself as an opportunity from folks who were working here. We started supplying some basic soldering irons and materials and the more we invested in it the more we saw people using it. It grew from there."

“We want to be the reason people come to UC. When looking at UC versus any of our competitors, we want them to look at this facility and say 'That’s why.'”

The Makerspace + Microfactory has interacted with over 1,700 students since opening last year, and Ben expresses interest in working with more students early-on in their education. The space has drawn proportionally more students from undergraduate studies than graduate programs. Ben addresses this by saying, “I think there’s a real opportunity here for graduate students to come in and get trained up on a lot of stuff within the first semester. Then you’ve got a year, two years, five years, depending on the program, to actually utilize this equipment.” 

The ability to use machines and devices of this caliber would be tremendously expensive in the real world; here they are – with the exception of the cost of materials and for staff time on certain machines which require safety precautions – completely free of charge.

Making the Golden Prototype Market-Ready

Some of the projects created from the Homegrown course.

In the lobby of the Makerspace + Microfactory, projects from former users line shelves to show what has been recently concocted. Many of these examples come from a course known as 'Homegrown' , which is a partnership between an industrial design professor and a fashion design professor. The goal of this class is to take a cohort of students from any disciplines and have them collaborate on a project which, over the course of the semester, becomes a consumer product. This kind of project allows any divisions between students from different disciplines to dissolve, as everyone is forced to wear many hats. There are elements of customer discovery, design, prototyping, business planning, branding, and anything else it takes to turn the idea into a successful product. It goes far beyond the scope of a class project. In addition, ‘Homegrown’ also makes use of an often-overlooked feature of the Makerspace + Microfactory: the fact that the space also functions as a microfactory.

Being able to successfully design and create a single piece is a commendable achievement, but no great business was created by selling one single copy of something. The Makerspace + Microfactory switches gears to help users in creating that first production run which can actually go to market. Ben states, “It’s one thing to be able to create that golden prototype so you know you can make it, it’s another thing to know what it will take to actually scale it.” This is where the microfactory part comes in. The space can not only help in the first run of fifty-to-one-hundred products, it can help get a business off the ground and achieve sustained production if everything aligns perfectly. “A really great outcome of this would be some companies that literally grew out of here. The product being designed here, run through the Venture Lab, business structure established, funding secured, and then the company launched. That would be the ideal outcome.”

Even if you are not trying to create a full-fledged business, the Makerspace + Microfactory is a wealth of opportunities for creation, whether it be for academic and professional development or simply for personal achievement. Be sure to take advantage of this space while it is available to you; there is no cost of admittance after all... 

Register for classes at the Makerspace + Microfactory by typing ‘1819’ in the course catalog search on Blackboard. Enroll in the ‘Ground Floor Makerspace 1819 iHub’ course (Course ID: ‘GF_Makerspace’) to sign up for the orientation.