RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Ever wonder how you’d go about turning your next great idea into a prototype?

While it’s not a simple process, it’s gotten a whole lot easier – and cheaper – thanks to the rise of community fab labs, or fabrication laboratories.

Closely aligned with the free and open-source movement, a number of these community-based workspaces have started to pop up around the Triangle in recent years, helping startups and scientists alike transform their dreams into reality.

Take Hangar6, for example. Created by the First Flight Venture Center, a science and technology incubator based in RTP, it provides entrepreneurs and startups with access to prototyping equipment, workspace and training — at a fee of around $200 per month.

Sam Dirani, Hangar6’s shop manager.

“Hangar6 was created to fill a critical need,” said Sam Dirani, Hangar6’s shop manager.

“Many startups were spending considerable money and time to get their first prototypes built with significant consequences if their first attempts did not work out as expected.”

Subscription-based model

But through subscription-based model at Hangar6, they can now take control of their prototyping needs using tools such as 3D scanners, CO2 lasers, metal fiber lasers, CNC mill, 3D printers and more.

“We encourage low-cost iterative approaches, which are often the best way to learn how to arrive at a better final product solution,” said Dirani.

Entrepreneurs design prototypes in Hangar6.

However, it’s not just access to equipment that makes the difference. Hangar6 also offers experienced technologists to help with the process.

“One of the biggest hurdles many startups face is how best to decide what materials they should use, and the best equipment to get it made. Some of this equipment requires considerable amounts of training to enable entrepreneurs to be proficient. Hangar6 staff has the training and knowledge to assist,” he said.

And as Dirani can attest, no two days are alike.

“Most days revolve around helping members solve their design problems and figure out creative fabrication solutions for their work. Other days I might be training a member on unique equipment such as our metal fiber laser or CNC Router, [or] providing an educational tour to a middle school class,” he said.

Hangar6 was initially funded by a $450,000 challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, as well as additional support from a number of local sponsors.

However, the long-term goal is to be self-sustaining through a variety of membership options, corporate sponsorships and donations, Dirani said.

Splat Space as a bio-workplace

And then there’s Splat Space, previously known as Durham Makerspace, a multidisciplinary workshop and hackerspace in downtown Durham.

A few years ago, scientist Thomas Randall and five other researchers decided to start a community-based biology lab within the space after getting connected through the Google group, DIYbio.

“I had started a home-based molecular biology lab, Ronin Genetics, around 2005 to extend some research I had been doing as a postdoc in the 90s, so I had experience setting up a functioning molecular biology lab in a non-traditional setting,” said Randall.

Called Triangle DIY Biology, the group functions as “Splat Space’s biology department”, with members working on both independent and collaborative projects.

On any given day, one member can be found building an automated platform for protein engineering for his tech company. At another table, a pair works together as a team to build a Mudwatt microbial fuel cell, a device that uses bacteria to convert organic matter found in mud into electricity.

Triangle DIY Biology members giving a demo at LaunchBio’ recent Larger Than Life Science event … (L-R): Peter Reintjes, Pete Soper, Dawn Trembath and Thomas Randall.

For Randall, it’s all about providing access to the community.

“It’s very hard and expensive to access and use laboratory equipment in a traditional academic or corporate setting. Just look at the cost of bench space at the BioLab,” he said.

“A community lab lowers the bar for access.”

It’s also important to promote the idea that anyone can participate in the scientific fields of microbiology, genetic engineering and biotechnology, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to show and teach non-specialists how to do relatively simple things that are commonly done in research, such as isolating DNA, running gels, or doing a PCR reaction. They can see that this isn’t really that intimidating or dangerous.”

Already, the group has established an informal collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

In coordination with the institute’s K-12 science outreach effort, the group has developed a lesson plan for its gel electrophoresis unit (a technique used in laboratories to separate charged molecules like DNA, RNA and proteins according to their size), complete with free homemade gel kits.

“We demo these gel units to groups of teachers, mainly in Durham and Wake County schools,” said Randall. “We’ve given away around 50 of these so far. If we had the funding, we’d like to do more of this, but right now we are self-financed.”