Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School Opens the "Fab Lab"

Ben Murray
March 10, 2008 —

New equipment at Viterbi's Fab Lab
includes this belt sander, a drill
press and a band saw.
Fab – adjective (slang), short for fabulous; or noun (informal), short for fabrication.

Fab Lab – name (informal), short for the USC Viterbi School Undergraduate Fabrication Laboratory, a place where students who need a place to build, cut, sculpt or carve materials for class or personal projects will have access to a high-tech workshop where their ideas become fabulous fabrication.

The new lab is located in the Rapp Engineering Research Building and is designed to allow undergraduates to precisely fabricate a vast range of items they often couldn’t before create with USC facilities.

“This new facility will be used by engineering undergraduates for their capstone design courses and by student teams,” says Linda Rock, associate dean for administration. “It will also be available to student inventors – any Viterbi undergrad who has an idea that he or she wants to build.”

At first glance, the Fab Lab resembles a high school shop. But the new facility is outfitted with a suite of precision tools such as a computer-controlled 3-D router, high-resolution scanner and 3-D printer.

“We are providing students with more hands-on experience and increasing the resources they will have access to for the fabrication of everything from experimental wingtips to scale models,” says Edward Maby, senior lecturer in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering who is chair of the advisory committee for the lab.

For example, a student designing a new glider or airplane wing might want to build part of the design in order to test its capabilities, explains Maby. Previously, the student would have faced days of painstaking labor to create the wing by hand or searched outside the university to find fabrication resources.

Mechanical engineering
freshman Morgan Clark cuts
a piece of metal on the
band saw at the Fab Lab.
Ewald Schuster, a research lab technician who staffs the Fab Lab says that students can feed the design into the new 3-D printer and watch as it creates an exact model of nearly any small part they have conceived.

“In a matter of hours, you can be holding an exact physical replica of something that was a three dimensional diagram or just an idea,” says Ewald holding up a concave tail cone. “It would be easy to spend a week, maybe a week and a half on something like this.”

The process can also work backwards. With the lab’s new scanner, students can also take a physical object, lay it on the 3-D router table, and get a precise electronic picture of it in minutes.

Maby says that beginning this semester, the Fab Lab will be available to students for senior-year capstone projects. The first capstone design class using the lab this spring will be students who are creating “smart” surfboards.

Along with such immediate applications, Maby also sees the lab as the nucleus of a multidisciplinary fabrication and design facility with excellent potential to reach out into the community.

He points out that Los Angeles County is one of the largest manufacturing hubs in the country and with a little bit of traction the new lab could become the focal point of collaborations between students and industry partners.

Aerospace engineering senior
Jessica Calhoun places an experimental
wing design on the new 3-D router.
“Right now the lab is relatively small, but with increased usage it could expand in coming semesters,” he says. “I think we’re poised to really get a lot of involvement with the lab and a lot of support.”

Along with the high-tech machines in the new lab is a set of more traditional tools students often need to fabricate parts for projects, including a band saw, drill press and belt sander.

As a new facility, the Fab Lab is still working on details such as opening hours and rules, reservations and fees for using some of the tools – more information can be found at (website URL).

“With the Fabrication Lab I can go and work on not only school projects but my own too,” says Lane Dalan, a senior majoring in aerospace and mechanical engineering. “I can quickly and accurately cut out a foam core to a flying wing for my senior design project or I can cut molds for aero design team in about a day. Before it would take about two weeks to get molds. And when I get done with that I can cut and shape a custom surfboard.”