From a thriving shipbuilding industry established during the Colonial era to a diverse manufacturing economy of textiles, beer, and raw materials in the mid-20th century, Philadelphia has long since called itself the "workshop of the world."
Those factories may be gone, but "the spirit of those times is still present," observes entrepreneur Evan Malone. "The craving to make things is very strong." Having created NextFab, a design and fabrication "gym for innovators" in South Philadelphia, Malone sees himself as helping to satisfy that craving.
By providing designers like Peterson Goodwyn with the tools to scale up from prototype to about 100 units, NextFab hopes to keep innovation at home. A 28-year-old musician with no training in manufacturing, Goodwyn has, for the past few years, been designing parts for hobbyists who want to build their own audio equipment. He used to work out of his basement with only his grandfather's drill press. Since putting up $129 each month as a NextFab member, though, he's gained access to top-of-the-line metal welding machines, mills, and cutters — and lots of free tutelage. "Now, I'm making 100 cases an hour instead of 10," he says. "And my horizons have expanded exponentially design-wise."
Malone got the idea for NextFab as a doctoral student after participating in MIT's Fab Lab, an outreach effort that introduces off-the-shelf digital fabrication tools and design software to communities around the world. With $400,000 from his family trust (his father is cable executive John Malone), he started NextFab in 2009, eschewing MIT's nonprofit model because he didn't want to depend on government funding. In early 2013, the outfit relocated to a 21,000-square-foot facility that has been souped-up with machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Membership has now climbed to 300 and a number of employees are on hand to offer expertise on the machines.
In addition to training and shared use of the expensive equipment, NextFab has dipped a toe into incubating hardware technology startups. One such outfit is a four-person biotech firm that's paired an iPhone with a custom hardware cradle to create a machine that identifies the presence of potentially harmful pathogens without necessitating a large-scale lab.
"Our mission is to help people learn about and use new technology to satisfy a creative urge, get a better job or, ideally, to start a company employing people and making things in Philadelphia," Malone says.
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Written by JoAnn Greco
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About the author: JoAnnJoAnn Greco
JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia – based journalist who writes frequently on travel, hospitality, lifestyle, and architecture. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, Hospitality Design, History Magazine, and many other publications.