Campus ‘makers’ find home in The Factory

In a Patterson Hall mechanical engineering laboratory at Mississippi State University, two seniors stood gazing at 3-D printers and imagined their possibilities.

Chemical engineering majors, Erik Antonio of Tanner, Alabama, and Nick Breland of Pace, Florida, hadn’t formed any real plans for what precisely they wanted to make using a 3-D printer. However, at the August interest meeting for The Factory–a budding and aptly-equipped “maker” space for industrious students, faculty and staff– they learned they would at least have access to the printers, and that was good enough for the moment.

“This is a great place where students can go and express their imaginations,” Breland said. “It’s a place where we can get more hands-on experience to apply what we learn in the classroom.”

Antonio, who said the interest meeting left his wheels turning with ideas, agreed.

“There’s so much you can do here,” he said. “It just depends on the time and effort you want to put into it.”

Following President Barack Obama’s 2014 initiative calling for the United States to once again become a nation of makers, Mississippi State’s James Worth Bagley College of Engineering and Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the College of Business collaborated to provide space and tools for makers. The Factory’s hub in the Patterson building is open from 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

To join, participants simply pay $40 per semester, which helps cover maintenance costs, and complete basic training programs for any tools and machines they wish to use.

Guiding the more than 40 students who attended The Factory’s fall interest meeting, student organizer Bryan Patton showed off the 3-D printing lab, welding facilities, lathes, and basic metal and woodworking tools makers can use. A graduate student working with the entrepreneurship center, Patton helped conceive the idea for The Factory to fill a need he discovered as a senior mechanical engineering major in 2013.

Working to build a friction-stir welder, a machine that welds metal without melting it, Patton spent six months trying to gain access to all of the campus facilities he needed to finish the machine.

Without a maker network on campus, he said he had to fight for time and access to equipment, often having to first gain permission from department heads.

“It was sort of a personal frustration that you had to know somebody who knew somebody in order to do something like this,” Patton said of making the welder. “I think that’s the whole purpose of The Factory–to keep others from having to go through that. And it’s remarkable to see how an experience like that pays off.”

Patton’s welder, once meant to be a smaller, more efficient model than its contemporaries on the commercial market, now serves something of a higher purpose. Today, it sits in The Factory, where other makers can use it for either welding or cutting materials–a kind of mascot for what the maker space represents.

Patton said he hopes to broaden The Factory’s reach across campus and has already recruited other departments that will offer space and services. The apparel, textiles and merchandising department will offer access to its industrial sewing lab, where makers can perfect the fabric aesthetics of their creations. MSU Libraries also will soon offer space in Mitchell Memorial Library where makers can access more 3-D printers and even check out certain tools.

The Factory started as a trial program in 2014 with about 45 participants. Whether the tools are donated, purchased or simply “made available,” Patton said The Factory has seen substantial growth in its capabilities since that time. And with membership expected to swell into the hundreds this year, he said the program would need all the tools and space it could get.

“Our ultimate goal is to give people access,” Patton said. “It wouldn’t take much more for us to get the making capability of our peers with strong ‘maker’ reputations. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

Long term, Entrepreneurship Center Director Eric Hill sees The Factory as providing substantial prototyping capabilities for entrepreneurial projects.
Hill explained that with the combination of The Factory’s resources and the Entrepreneurship Center’s feedback and business-building support, Mississippi State students stand an even better chance of creating their own jobs while in college, rather than just preparing to go find a job after they graduate.

“This program is really at the top of that philosophy,” Hill said. “They’ll be experiencing the process of taking a product from an idea to completion. This cross-disciplinary skill set will make them more competitive.”

During operating hours, a Factory leader is always on duty to solve problems and help keep makers and the equipment safe. Of course, many of these leaders are makers themselves.

Last year, Michael Lane, a Factory leader and junior mechanical engineering major, made custom cedar shelving, complete with backlighting. This fall, he built and installed workstations for The Factory’s makers.

Lane said he felt like better equipment and more members gave a clearer picture for The Factory this year.

“We’re excited about it,” the Amory native said. “We’re going to keep trying to build it.”

Story by Zack Plair | Photography by Russ Houston | Video by David Garraway