By Tom Still

WAUNAKEE – In a room that was once little more than a storage area for largely unused equipment, the Waunakee School District is outfitting a space where students can explore their futures.

Dedicated this month at a breakfast that highlighted investments of time and money by community business leaders, the fabrication laboratory – or “fab lab” – within Waunakee High School is still a year or so away from being fully operational.

Already, however, students are using a laser engraver to turn out specially ordered drinking glasses for a wedding and on the horizon are more computer-operated machines, such as 3-D printers.

“We see the Innovation Center as not only benefitting students who will learn here over time, but also members of the community who will eventually have access to a ‘maker space’ for entrepreneurial and other projects,” said district superintendent Randy Guttenberg.

The Waunakee Innovation Center is part of a growing network of school-based fab labs in Wisconsin, which is rapidly becoming a hub for such facilities that bring STEAM education – science, technology, engineering, art and math – to an applied level.

It is a movement that promises to expose more young people to careers in manufacturing, a sector that remains a core strength of the Wisconsin economy despite competitive challenges tied to the need for skilled workers and higher productivity.

There are 25 fab labs in Wisconsin school districts and more are on the way now that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has earmarked an extra $500,000 for the program. Districts must find local partners and compete for grants that typically total $25,000, with private dollars matching or surpassing the state money.

Fab labs were born in 2001 at the Center for Bits and Atoms within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Growing slowly for the first decade, the number of labs has risen sharply in recent years as prices dropped for 3-D printers, laser engravers and computer numerical control routers, or CNCs.

Today, there are roughly 140 fab labs in the United States and Canada, 340 in Europe and a total of more than 700 worldwide. Exact rankings are hard to come by, but Wisconsin is likely among the top two or three states in the number of labs operating or getting certified.

Typical student assignments in a fab lab include making a circuit board, molding and casting projects, engraving glass or metals, 3D design and prototyping.

Why are fab labs important? They represent one way Wisconsin can hope to maintain its leadership in manufacturing, a standing that is constantly tested in a competitive world. Today’s manufacturing companies are increasingly producing more with fewer workers, and those workers are likely trained to operate complicated machines that employ the latest technologies.

Manufacturing workers today are less likely to work on an assembly line that produces one-size-fits-all products than they are to work in a custom-design setting. Those workers must be able to grasp mathematics, engineering and information technology, among other skills, and prepared to learn new skills when the next wave of innovation rolls in.

In order to compete for a fab lab, school districts must meet some important pre-requisites: teach a STEAM curriculum and provide access to high-speed broadband connections to the internet.

Collaboration is another key feature of these labs, with schools teaming with nearby businesses to provide equipment, training possibilities, internships and more. Among the requirements for winning a WEDC grant is that lab space is made available to community entrepreneurs, inventors and small businesses after the school day is over.

In Waunakee, for example, local partners so far include Findorff Construction, North American Mechanical, Westphal Electric, Tormach Inc., Globalcom Technology, Hellenbrand Water, Endres Manufacturing Foundation, Waunakee Community Bank, State Bank of Cross Plains, Hovde Properties, DNS Dental and Mobile Glass.

Gov. Scott Walker announced the expansion of the state fab lab program while touring a school center in St. Croix County. The WEDC will begin accepting applications for the program’s second round Oct. 10 and the agency expects to make about 20 grants.

Many forces have combined to change the face of manufacturing over time, and people in Wisconsin can’t control most of them. However, the state can offer ways for young “makers” to use their hands, brains and computer skills to train themselves for tomorrow’s jobs.