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Houston County, Ga., Joining 'Maker' Movement

As entrepreneurs develop their products, they’ll have an opportunity to actually start businesses that would have an impact beyond the introduction of new concepts.

by Jeremy Timmerman, The Macon Telegraph / February 23, 2015
At Chicago's Museum of Science+Industry, students gain hands-on experience in the Fab Lab, one of which is coming to Houston County, Ga. Flickr/opacity
(Tribune News Service) -- The “makerspace” or “fab lab” movement is headed to Houston County, Ga., and it could help start at least one business there.

The school system is providing the building, at the Houston County Career Academy, and Flint Energies is bringing the ideas, start-up funding -- and some equipment.

“This has been swirling around in the community for quite awhile,” Superintendent Mark Scott said.

Jason Urbain, a Warner Robins resident and engineer by trade, already has plans for what he’ll do in the space. He has designed a new archery arrowhead and has started the process for a patent.

Access to a “fab lab” would help get his plans off the ground.

“It would provide me resources that would help me test my archery product and offer assurance to my customer that my product functions as it was designed to function,” he said.

Local entrepreneurs such as Urbain stand to benefit in other ways from the arrangement. One goal of the Houston County community innovation center -- tentatively called AfterBurner -- would be to have retired engineers and other professionals participating as well to serve as an additional resource, said Jay Flesher with Flint Energies.

“The biggest issues that you have are learning hard lessons on your own,” Flesher said of the innovation process.

Helping innovators would, in turn, help the local economy. As entrepreneurs develop their products, they’ll have an opportunity to actually start businesses that would have an impact beyond the introduction of new concepts.

“My goal is to provide operation and assembly here in Warner Robins,” Urbain said. “It would probably be about 30 jobs.”

The concept behind a “makerspace” is as simple as the name sounds: It is a space for people to make things, essentially. That could be in the form of designing computer software applications, or apps, developing prototypes for invention ideas or just working on home improvement projects.

“It’s a place for the community, our business partners and students to all come together and work,” said Eric Payne, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

Macon’s version of the concept, SparkMacon, has been in operation since November. Board member Rob Betzel said the group has grown to about 50 members, and a calligraphy class in February drew close to 80 people.

“Participation has been good,” he said. “Obviously, we need to grow our membership.”

Rather than being concerned about competition between the two groups, Betzel saw the prospects in Houston County as beneficial. Besides growing a community of people interested in designing and making things, the two facilities will likely serve different audiences.

“We’re excited to see that,” Betzel said. “These spaces operate where people live. That’s part of the value of them.”

In addition to innovation efforts, the Houston County space would give students a place to hone skills in the all-important fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Students could practice on equipment and projects, and AfterBurner could also provide them with mentors in the fields they hope to work in.

“One of the things that we want to try to address is the recruitment and retention of STEM professionals in our surrounding industries,” Flesher said.

Beyond that, AfterBurner could also draw from people in the Houston County area to work on whatever project they’re interested in. That could include those who are looking to “collect knowledge” by working with particular equipment or people who have endeavors they don’t have the gear or space for at home.

Regardless, Flesher said AfterBurner would be there as a resource.

“This is really meant to be a community workshop,” he said.

That variety has also been a positive component of SparkMacon’s efforts.

“It’s really a giant gamut,” Betzel said. “I’m amazed by the breadth of it.”

©2015 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

 

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