BY GREGORY ZELLER
LaunchPad Huntington has landed a $15,000 grant from Albany’s Workforce Development Institute to build out a 3D maker space prototyping facility.
The grant covers the cost of a cutting machine, a dedicated computer loaded with CAD drawing software and a desktop-sized 3D printer, all being purchased now. The space should be up and running by late May, according to Phil Rugile, LaunchPad Huntington’s director.
“This is a really significant 21st century opportunity for Long Island,” Rugile said. “This is one of the pieces of an economy that can start replacing industries like traditional printing and traditional manufacturing.”
When it opens, the maker space will join existing Island 3D printing groups, including the eponymous Long Island Maker Space, which meets Thursdays at the Howard J. Moore Co. in Plainview. There, members of the Meetup.com group make use of an industrial-sized 3D printer, a state-of-the-art laser cutter and computer-numeric-controlled machines.
(Computer-numeric what? Unlike a 3D printer, which adds material to build a prototype, a CNC carves away excess materials to do the same, more a sculptor than a builder. Got it? Good.)
Among those members is Aaron Foss, a serial entrepreneur whose last creation, the see-the-local-sights software package SideTour, was snatched up by Groupon in 2013. Foss declined to say how much Groupon paid for his startup, but noted it was enough for “some time off” – time he spent inventing his newest company, Nomorobo, a cloud-based software system that fritzes telemarketing calls.
While his ventures tend to be software-related, Foss – also an adjunct professor at Molloy College – considers himself a “maker” who’s acutely aware of the importance of prototyping to modern inventors.
“What I’ve learned over the last decade of being an entrepreneur is that prototyping – getting things out to market quickly and getting feedback – is the thing that can separate you and make you successful,” Foss said. “That’s what I tell my students, who often have paper-based models of their ideas. Prototyping is super-important.”
While 3D prototyping is unlikely to completely change the manufacturing world, just like the advent of desktop laser printers didn’t herald the end of commercial printing, it will “become an integral tool,” Foss noted, and he agrees that Long island is uniquely positioned to capitalize on that future.
“The key is that the maker’s scene on Long Island is really strong, and it’s growing up very quickly,” Foss said. “There’s a great combination here of the old and the young – the engineers who’ve been around and maybe worked at Grumman or in the defense industry, and the young kids with their 3D printers. The maker scene brings them all together.”
What LaunchPad Huntington is trying to do, Rugile noted, is apply some hustle to that muscle.
“Especially in the first year, we’re going to try to focus it not on commercial use but as an educational tool,” the LaunchPad exec said. “That’s partly a stipulation of the grant. The Workforce Development Institute is a retraining-oriented nonprofit.”
While the WDI stipend will bring the equipment to LaunchPad Huntington, Rugile and his team are still looking for people to run it, and to teach others to operate it. The maker space is also going to need plenty of filament materials to print with – mostly acrylic fibers, Rugile noted – and they’re not cheap. So Rugile is soliciting sponsors and will allow inventors to rent time on the equipment for commercial purposes.
“And when we do rent it out, we’ll do it for 50 percent less than any other place you can do it,” he added. “This ties in beautifully with our mission of promoting entrepreneurial activity.”
It also plugs directly into the role 3D printing will play in the 21st century economy, Foss noted, not only on Long Island but around the globe.
“Because all of the files are electronic, people can be working together and be anywhere in the world,” he said. “Two people on opposite sides of the world can have the exact same thing in their hands at exactly the same time, so they can refine the design quickly and cheaply before they get to the injection molds and full production, when things get really expensive.
“That’s exactly what they’re doing at LaunchPad: Bringing the building blocks together and adding the entrepreneurship side, which is what’s really going to move things ahead,” Foss added.
“This is what’s going to make Long Island look really good.”