Behind a small storefront with a dusty red awning near the University of Washington Tacoma, a business is being born where an inventor could turn an idea into a prototype in an afternoon.
When FabLab Tacoma opens in about a month, it will be on its way to being the most advanced do-it-yourself workshop in the state. Targeting entrepreneurs, hobbyists, artists, students and garage tinkerers, FabLab will feature high-tech equipment including laser cutters and 3-D printers in addition to tools typically found in metal and wood shops.
I see it as an avenue to get entrepreneurship jump-started in Tacoma, principal partner Stephen Tibbitts said last week. Its a place where people can go to explore their ideas and make initial products and prototypes.
Or a place where someone can go to make a chair, if they dont have a garage.
Tibbetts, his son and two family friends are investing about $100,000 to launch FabLab, which plans to open by November at 1938 Market St., just up the hill from The Rock and The Swiss.
The idea behind FabLab, short for Fabrication Lab, is to collect dues and give members access to machines they cant afford to buy on their own a $30,000 laser cutter and etcher, for example.
The precision and automation of such tools opens up new possibilities, said Peter Davenport, a student at Tacoma Community College and the leader of the Tacoma Robotics Club.
The tools I collect myself are hand tools, or things youll do one thing at a time, he said. I could put together one robot leg out of wood and plastic. But if I wanted to make eight legs, like a robot spider, it would be hard for me to make the legs all the same. Now its possible to make eight legs all the same.
FabLabs founders are Pierce County residents who are keeping their day jobs. Tibbitts is a computer chip maker with three previous start-ups under his belt; his son Chris is a mechanical engineer; William Davis is a business graduate from Pacific Lutheran University who works for Costco; and Scott Wallace is a pastor who also worked for decades in industrial supply distribution.
I joined to help them out because of our friendships and my interest in business, said Wallace, who is acting as FabLabs marketing director and has known Stephen Tibbitts for decades.
The idea hatched this spring after Tibbitts attended a conference in San Jose, Calif., and came across TechShop, a 6-year-old company with six locations nationwide. TechShop offers tiered membership, which is the approach FabLab is taking.
A full membership to FabLab is $125 a month, with discounts for students, teachers or those paying annually.
Tibbitts said FabLab must ramp up to 200 memberships within two years to be self-sustaining.
The fear, really, Tibbitts said, then he paused. The Bay Area is a completely different environment in terms of entrepreneurism and creative people. Theres thousands more of them. So are there 200 or 300 people in Tacoma willing to pay dues from $80-$100 to do this? That was a big leaping-off point.
Tibbitts and his partners became more confident after having unofficial discussions with faculty and staff at the UWTs Institute of Technology, who said people at the school had been thinking for years about a facility just like FabLab.
If we can get the university on board, and at least cover rent, we can build from there, Tibbitts said.
Community work spaces such as FabLab often are organized as nonprofits, accept donations and target artists and artisans as well as the more technically minded. Wallace said many such workshops have sprouted up near MIT, for example, and might receive university funding or grant money to cover operating expenses.
FabLab is organized as a for-profit company, a decision Wallace said was mainly based on a desire to keep investing in new equipment. The only other such workshop in the state appears to be Seattles Metrix Create:Space, which charges time-based fees to use equipment in addition to the cost of monthly membership.
Davenport, a 17-year-old student, didnt blink an eye at FabLabs monthly membership fees. He wants to work on metal casings for ink-pen refills, as well as design an underwater robot.
To build those parts, I couldnt do it in my garage, he said. If you do this as a hobby, (the fees dont) seem too out of the ordinary.