MOUNT VERNON — What if you can have a gym membership for a machine shop or design lab? Knox Labs defines itself as a “community makerspace” in downtown Mount Vernon.
This membership-based STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) space houses a variety of machinery, tools, and software as well as programs and classes for members to “discover, develop and share their potential as makers.”
Originally conceived in 2015 by a small group of enthusiasts, the idea of a new makerspace in Knox County transformed in 2016 into the 501(c)3 non-profit organization today.
Knox Labs officially opened its door in 2018. The organization is now headed by Executive Director Todd Davis and fifteen board members.
When asked for an interview, Davis said, “I would love to sit down and discuss, but I would rather make something with you.”
Through the downtown 104 South Main Street storefront, Knox Labs opens up to a 5,500 square foot facility occupying the entire first floor of the Stephen W. Nease Center. The lab offers its members access at an affordable cost to design software, 3D printers, laser and vinyl cutters, engravers, CNC devices as well as a chop saw and table saw.
“Growing up you may have access to your mother’s or father’s tools and equipment; they had a garage full of things you can use to be creative,” Davis described the essence of Knox Labs’ concept, said. “What we have done here is gathered equipment, tools, knowledge, capabilities. So a person could come in off the streets, buy a membership, like you buy to a gym to workout, but instead of working out, you make things.”
In the lab, Davis demonstrated how to operate a 3-axis 3D printer and the laser engraver. He showcased some of the results, including a fossil model, wooden signs and functional prints such as a lens case.
The design and tinkering process is often through trial and error. The laser engraver, for example, has several levels of speed and intensity and could require a few attempts to find the right combination for a project’s purpose.
This could be a valuable lesson particularly for young students.
Local educators often identify one of the most important parts of education as training youngsters to have “grits”—to be able to work through challenges and solve problems, Davis said.
What makes Knox Labs special is that it is open to the public, said Davis, as opposed to most common makerspaces located within education institutions, such as a high school chemistry lab.
Knox Labs nevertheless forms strong partnership with local institutions, notably the Mount Vernon Nazarene University’s Engineering Department. Under this partnership, Knox Labs rents the floor for one dollar a year and in turn provides MVNU’s engineering students free access to its services.
The lab currently has three paid staff including Davis, Programs Coordinator Elena Garcia, and Engineering Technician Greg Childers. Childers’s position is shared between Knox Labs and MVNU.
The lab is also frequently utilized by local educators from SPI, COTC and Kenyon College. One upcoming Kenyon class will be making wax Roman tablets at Knox Labs.
Besides students and educators, members of the lab range from retirees and kids to small business owners, including someone who sells woodcarving online. The design and other intellectual properties belong to the member, Davis said, protected under confidentiality clauses and copyright laws.
Striving for affordability and accessibility, Knox Labs’ monthly membership fee is $25, less than half the price of a typical for-profit makerspace.
The lab also offers scholarships for those who cannot afford the monthly fee.
Davis pointed to the story of local celebrity Jim Buchwald, founder of Ariel Corporation, as an inspiration.
“Jim had to go out and buy all this equipment (when he was building his first compressor), and he didn’t have access to many things. He could’ve easily failed because of that,” Davis said. “But if there’s a person out there that needs some tools, some equipment, some know-how, we want to be a place where they can come and seek that out.”
In 2018, before its official opening, Knox Labs with Fab Foundation’s support hosted an Appreciative Inquiry Summit where community members gathered and shared their knowledge and aspirations for a makerspace in Knox County.
The AI Summit Report, currently available to the public on Knox Labs’ homepage—knoxlabs.org, not to be confused with knoxlabs.com—summarizes the summit results. The three main ideas shared by participants are for Knox Labs to support innovation, continue to build strong partnerships, and to reduce brain drain from Knox County.
Knox County has for a while been concerned about the exodus of its youth and sometimes struggles to recruit and retain skilled workforce, especially in the STEAM field. Opportunity is key in this case, and Knox Labs strives to be an asset to the solution.
Davis referenced the ongoing national discussions about high college tuition and “real fake doors” in which college graduates struggle to access job opportunities that college education supposedly brings.
Knox Labs partners with Ariel Foundation on workforce development that encourages youth to consider technical apprenticeships, trade schools and practical skills as viable alternatives to college.
“There is a time and a place where an industry may say, our entire market of viable employability in the area is drained,” Davis said. “The (solution) is not just bringing people in but to develop people within… Maybe we can instill in them that you can go to a technical school like COTC, gain a skill in a trade, and be a very helpful part of our community.”
Davis said that the organization focuses heavily on listening to the community.
“It’s easy for a business to come in and say ‘Here is our mission; this is what we’re going to make.’ But how often could a business come in and say, ‘What should our mission be? Who should we serve?’” Davis said the organization is open to changing and developing to better serve its base.
One of the developments include an internship program that is scheduled to launch in late 2019 and early 2020. Interns will create “infinity mirrors,” parallel mirrors that generate infinite reflections, and set them up to glow blue and orange like the portals in the puzzle-solving video game, Portal.
The idea of Knox Labs has received tremendous financial and philanthropic support from local industry and institutions since early on, and now the lab works on developing its business to catch up to the support and potentials, according to Davis.
“We’re trying to come up from many directions,” Davis said. “We can be something small for one person, but something large for the community.”
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