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August 29, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Entrepreneur sees future in 3-D printing

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Joe Schoenmann

Jen McCabe, McCabe sees 3-D printing as a wide-open frontier and wants to bring the new technology to everyday Las Vegans.

After 18 months at Romotive, the smartphone-robot company that began in Las Vegas then moved to Silicon Valley, Jen McCabe immediately began working on plans for Fabbed Labs, a downtown 3-D printing venture.

She loved helping the robot business get off the ground but got out when her job evolved more into sales.

“I’m an early-stage person, and Romotive is at the point where they are ready to scale,” she says, talking about the company’s growth, made possible with a manufacturing line McCabe helped set up in China.

What got her creative thinking stoked with Romotive was taking an unfamiliar technology most people associate with assembly line manufacturing and making it available for home use.

For McCabe, who likes to go where no one has gone before, 3-D printing has similar characteristics with just as much of a “wow” factor. Her dream is to bring the technology to Las Vegas residents, creating a space where ordinary people will feel as welcome tinkering with the devices as someone with a master's degree in engineering.

“Every single time we think about this, the question in our minds should be, 'How do we get everyone in the downtown community involved?"" she said. "Then the next thought should be, ‘How do we get the rest of the Vegas area community to join?’

“I moved here for community, community, community. If I don’t make Fabbed Labs accessible to an 8-year-old and her mom, then I’ve failed. If only people in Silicon Valley can use it, I’ve failed. If I can’t help a landscaper who wants to make something for his job, I’ve failed.”

Because 3-D printing is still very new to mom-and-pop consumers – though it’s been around some 30 years for aerospace and auto industries, “desktop” printing is only a few years old. Here’s a rudimentary explanation of the complex and fascinating technology:

• Printers, some about the size of a large microwave oven and on sale for as low as $1,300 in office supply stores, will render virtually any image you can put on paper or on screen and print a copy of it in three dimensions. So, draw a ball in 3-D on your computer, click "Print," and hours later you have a ball you can throw. It's sorta like Wonka-vision, but you can’t eat what’s printed – at least not yet. (And yes, the time spent waiting is a big current barrier for desktop printers.)

• With cartridges supplying the plastic, a nozzle lays down layer upon layer of plastic that stick together until the object matches the image on the screen. It works with other materials, too, such as metals and wood pulp. That has people thinking of building large devices to “print” objects like furniture.

Artistic use of 3-D printing is fairly evident. But the industry also is poised to make a big contribution in the medical field. Instead of mass-produced prosthetics, for instance, physicians with a CAD program could create limbs catered to each individual patient.

McCabe’s eyes really light up, though, when she talks about putting the technology to use for everyday people. And kids.

“I like the idea of making every person an engineer without them even knowing it,” she says, adding that when people start thinking of printing in 3-D, they are forced to see objects from the “how they work” perspective, which is the basis of engineering.

McCabe is getting the ball rolling with some events this summer. The first is called Fabbed, which she says will be a “3-D printing weekend extravaganza.”

With Motorola, which is providing 3-D printers, laser cutters and tools, Fabbed Labs with Downtown Project Kids and Family are planning a three-day Make-a-Thon June 7-9, inviting people from throughout the community to come up with an 3D-created product that can be brought to market.

(To register, sign up at makewithmoto.com/lasvegas. The event is limited to six teams.)

In addition, the Motorola team, with its homeMAKER program, will attempt to solve everyday problems brought to them by everyday Las Vegas residents. Household items that might be made are listed here.

In July, as part of the Stitch Factory speakers series, McCabe is planning to bring designers and artists together to see what they can come up with using 3-D printing.

Meanwhile, she wants to begin making connections with UNLV and local artists for more collaboration, which she believes will creatively benefit everyone involved.

By the fall, McCabe expects Downtown Project to give her idea a thumbs up or down.

“We’re running the numbers and trying to think of the most cost-efficient, engaing way to take this to people, to make this fun and interesting and a way for people to engage with this new technology,” she says. “And if I fail, maybe one or two kids who were exposed to the technology will point to that as their reason for becoming engineers some day. If that’s what happens, then it’s worth it.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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