A collaborative workspace with digital and traditional fabrication tools, classes, consulting and events, NextFab is coming to downtown Wilmington
To Ryan Harrington, NextFab is “a Disney for makers.”
Mona Parikh says “it’s cool…so much fun.”
Jessi Taylor considers it another after-hours option, an alternative to bars, concerts and television.
Carrie Gray says this “high school woodshop on steroids” will be a key anchor for Wilmington’s developing Creative District.
And Bernice Whaley sees it as an economic engine, a place where men and women can learn and develop skills needed to transition into new jobs or launch entrepreneurial careers.
Clearly, NextFab means different things to different people, but what else can you expect when an operation brands itself as a “gym for innovators”?
Area residents will get their chance to create their own description in late spring or early summer when the Philadelphia-based makerspace opens a 3,500-square-foot satellite studio in the Creative District, the designation that the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation has pinned on the area bordered by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets. As of mid-December, NextFab CEO Evan Malone wasn’t about to reveal the exact location, saying he didn’t want to jinx the nearly concluded negotiations on the lease.
Malone, enticed by Gray, the Wilmington Renaissance managing director, came to visit Wilmington nearly two years ago, as planning for the Creative District was in its infancy, and quickly bought into the concept. “This is incredibly important, something I want to be part of,” he says, referring to a master plan to make the area immediately west of Market Street a residential and commercial hub for artists, crafters and tech-savvy entrepreneurs.
“This is a new era for Wilmington,” Malone says.
Financed in part by a $350,000 start-up grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office, NextFab’s Wilmington center will be designed to offer the attractions that have already won it an influential cadre of Delaware boosters, albeit on a smaller scale than in Philadelphia.
Gray’s “woodshop on steroids” analogy is appropriate. Think of a warehouse-like setting filled with tools for woodworking and metalworking—more than your average handyman could put in a garage or basement (if he or she could afford to buy them all). Add a section for making jewelry. On top of that, layer in the whiz-bang 21st-century technology—3D and large-format printers, laser cutters, CAD software, and more. In addition, NextFab will offer classes and its staff will be trained to show new users how to handle the equipment.
“The focus is on digital manufacturing—using computer designs in digital format to drive robotic tools,” Malone says, “but we also have a complete metal shop, with computer-controlled machine tools and manual tools like mills and lathes, and a complete welding area.” The wood shop, with its saws, sanders, drills and routers, he adds, “is a great entry point for people who are nervous about making things for themselves for the first time.”
To use the gear, members pay monthly fees, which range from $49 to $359, depending on anticipated usage. “The low end is for weekend users and hobbyists. The ultra-premium level is aimed at professionals, those who are using the facility for their business,” Malone says. Wilmington members will also have access to NextFab’s two Philadelphia sites for no extra charge.
Access to all three spaces is important, Malone notes, because there might not be enough space in Wilmington to accommodate all the gear that’s available in Philadelphia.
However, he adds, the Wilmington site will have one or more features to distinguish itself from NextFab’s Philadelphia locations—to give Philadelphia-based members some incentive to make occasional visits to Wilmington. No decisions have been made on what those special features might be.
Key figures within Wilmington’s creative community are anticipating NextFab’s arrival.
“It’s a great way for people to learn,” says Harrington, education coordinator at 1313 Innovation, the year-old co-working space in Hercules Plaza. “They come with experience.
They’re starting with a platform that works, as they’ve proven in Philadelphia. It’s another outlet for people, whether they’re in technology, in a startup, or part of the maker community.”
Parikh, managing director of the Start It Up Delaware co-working space and community builder for the Archer Group digital marketing agency, recently visited NextFab in Philadelphia, where she and friends signed up to take a couple of basic courses.
“First you must go through their safety training,” she says, and “as part of that you have to make something that works.”
For woodworking, she made a shelf. For metalworking, a bottle opener.
“Who knows?” she says. “If I keep my membership I might be the next metalworking queen.”
Taylor, president of the board of directors of Barrel of Makers, a Wilmington-based collaborative that now holds weekly “Maker Mondays” at 1313 Innovation, thinks NextFab will provide “a great space to have cross-communication with people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet in your field.”
NextFab has approached Barrel of Makers about possible partnerships. “We think that’s great,” Taylor says, “but we’re going to have to talk it through” to see how the relationship evolves.
Barrel of Makers, she says, has about 30 core participants and a total of nearly 200 people who show up occasionally for activities, and many of them are likely candidates for NextFab membership.
Besides reaching out to Barrel of Makers, Malone says he has contacted area colleges and universities about possible collaborations. And he has learned from his experience in Philadelphia that professional organizations, hobby clubs and school groups will be interested in visiting the site and learning about the technology. Some of these visitors, of course, ultimately will become NextFab members.
Whaley, the director of the Delaware Economic Development Office, says NextFab “will directly support our innovative entrepreneurs” and also bolster indirect job growth in the surrounding area. The terms of the state’s $350,000 grant require NextFab to hire five fulltime employees and serve at least 120 members in its first three years of operation, she says.
Noting the uncertainty surrounding the DuPont Co.’s merger with Dow Chemical and the long-term location of the headquarters for Chemours, the DuPont spinoff created last summer, Whaley pointed to NextFab as a facility that could assist downsized employers in transitioning to new careers.
“We’ve seen it with AstraZeneca and others. [Downsized] workers say ‘I can do these things’ or ‘I can go out on my own.’ This is one way they can develop new skills,” Whaley says.
NextFab, Wilmington Renaissance’s Gray says, “will make accessible equipment, technology and training that might not otherwise be available” to area residents.
What can they make with that equipment?
Well, in Philadelphia, Malone says, members are using large-format printers to make vehicle wraps and window graphics, tools in the advanced electronics studio to design and assemble circuit boards, and laser cutters to make holiday ornaments and candle holders.
One heavy-duty user, who has his own business, is using a “water jet” (that’s shorthand for a five-axis abrasive water jet cutter) to experiment with new designs to make window air conditioners more energy efficient.
To Gray, however, more important than what NextFab’s makers make is the potential impact the center can have as the Creative District develops.
By filling a currently vacant building, she says, NextFab will “bring more energy and life to the stretch just west of Market Street.”
The impact will be gradual, Malone cautions, because his plan to be “up and running by summer” most likely means operating at about 75 percent of capacity while advancing to close to 100 percent capacity later in the year.
“Because a lot of our users have day jobs, we will have evening and weekend hours,” Malone says. “Activity on the street and in our space will help activate the entire neighborhood.”
That activity, he says, will bring new customers to restaurants and service businesses in the neighborhood, and to the vendors who can provide the raw materials that artists and crafters use in their work. “There’s a lot of indirect economic activity,” he adds.
Getting more people onto the streets in the evening and on weekends, Gray says, should make the neighborhood more appealing for potential residents —the 10-unit Willing Street Artist Village housing rehabilitation project is now under way in Quaker Hill, in the southwest corner of the Creative District—and visitors alike.
Parikh envisions NextFab’s arrival as a launching pad for fresh synergies among the artists and crafters who use the space and the graphic designers and coders who frequent the CoinLoft on Market Street, Start It Up Delaware’s collaborative space.
“We’re all in this together,” she says.