The next industrial revolution has arrived at the University of Illinois, but it’s not happening on the side of Green Street that anyone familiar with the Urbana campus would expect.
Located on the third floor of the Business Instructional Facility, the Illinois MakerLab is touted as the world’s first 3-D printing lab in a business school.
Founded in spring 2013, the lab’s objective is to provide U. of I. students with the knowledge and resources to be at the forefront of the emerging “maker movement” by teaching them how to design, manufacture and market 3-D printed objects, said Aric Rindfleisch, the John M. Jones Professor of Marketing in the College of Business.
Rindfleisch, the co-founder and executive director of the lab, said 3-D printing democratizes innovation by empowering individuals with the knowhow and tools to manufacture ... well, pretty much whatever they imagine.
“3-D printing is a technology that is changing both our economy and the way that goods are made, as well as who makes them and how they’re distributed,” he said.
According to Rindfleisch, 3-D printing technology has important implications for many facets of business, including manufacturing, distribution, retailing and consumer behavior.
“Having those skills for the next economy is important,” he said. “As more products become digital, the investment needed to produce them shrinks dramatically. Just like how anyone can shoot and edit a video on their phone, we’re pretty close to having that same capacity for the manufacturing business. Ultimately, businesses are going to need young people who have the skills and
know-how to create, produce and sell those digital products.”
In addition to training the workforce of the future, Rindfleisch also believes the 3-D printing movement fosters an entrepreneurial spirit.
“When students are able to design and manufacture their own products, they’re essentially in business for themselves,” he said. “As a business professor, I thought that was a profound change, and I thought it would be good for the Urbana campus to stay ahead of the curve.”
Rindfleisch also thought the College of Business could do more with the concept. “Why not create our own 3-D printing lab and design an entire curriculum around it?” he said. “Make it like a library or a computer lab, and have open hours so anyone can come and explore. Well, that’s exactly what we did.”
The College of Business currently offers two 3-D printing courses: Digital Making, which teaches skills in different aspects of digital making; and Making Things, a team-based course with students from business, design and engineering forming an interdisciplinary team. Students conceptualize, design, prototype, manufacture and market a new product. The end-of-semester capstone project includes a pitch video to potential investors.
Cameron Alberg is a senior from Chicago studying engineering mechanics. And thanks to the Making Things class, he’s also the co-creator of “Booty,” a slim, clip-on wallet designed for the active student.
“As soon as I saw the Making Things class, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’”he said.
The class was 21 students divided into teams of three, with each team composed of one engineering student, one design student
and one business student.
“We were thrown together and we just started coming up with ideas – and it was really, really fun,” Alberg said. “Ultimately, it was confirmation that this is what I want to do as a career. It’s a really unique experience.”
Outside of taking a class, there are many other ways that students can become involved with the lab, said Vishal Sachdev, director of the Illinois MakerLab.
“We have formal courses and workshops, but we also have students just coming in and asking questions and gaining familiarity with the technology,” he said. “So there are a number of different ways to gain that skillset, which sets up all sorts of opportunities for collaboration.”
“It also fosters a lot of peer-to-peer learning, which is how partnerships start,” Rindfleisch said.
In other words, the curious shouldn’t be intimidated. The idea is for students to tinker and, to refashion a phrase from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “break stuff.”
“It’s really open and welcoming to anyone who wants to come in and learn about 3-D printing,” said Nora Benson, a junior from
Chicago majoring in engineering.
It also helps that students do most of the training, Sachdev said.
“It’s not uncommon to see students not only teaching their fellow students, but also graduate students, faculty and staff,” he said.
“It’s a nice ethos of people wanting to help each other.”
For the capstone project of her Digital Making class, Benson and her classmates gained experience creating affordable, customizable prosthetics by working with a nonprofit group to custom-print three replacement fingers for a North Carolina man.
“I wanted to find more practical and useful
applications for 3-D printing,” she said.
“I’ve also been interested in 3-D prosthetics,
so Vishal and I thought it would be a good
semester project to pursue.”
The lab offers students “the freedom to create while also giving them the resources, motivation and support to build something
they’re interested in,” Benson said. “There really are no limitations other than you’re using 3-D printers – and that really isn’t a
limitation at all.”
Rindfleisch’s ultimate vision for the Illinois MakerLab is it becoming “the premiere destination for employers to recruit young, innovative students with interdisciplinary skills.”
“We’re viewed as a thought leader of this movement, and we have plans to expand the curriculum,” he said. “In many ways, the MakerLab is at the vanguard of a larger campuswide movement to get undergraduate students to do more experience-based learning, and the business school is really leading the way.”