Robins Region Nurtures STEM Careers

FireStarter FABLab ignites entrepreneurship and educates students.

By
Val Beerbower
On Wednesday, September 2, 2020 - 14:30
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When entrepreneurs in the Robins Region need help bringing their ideas to life, they turn to the FireStarter FABLab for instruction and a path to a prototype.

Jay Flesher, community development manager for Flint Energies, helped establish the 501(c)3 nonprofit, FireStarter, in the community. The founding council saw a need for those burgeoning small businesses to gain specific skills and test concepts before bringing them to market, and thus the FABLab was born.

“We’re trying to grow businesses, educate and move the economy forward in our community,” Flesher says.

The 7,000-square-foot facility located at the Houston County Career Academy is designed for custom digital fabrication and contains all of the tools necessary to conceptualize, digitize, fabricate and assemble a wide range of physical projects. But the benefits aren’t exclusively for the small business community. The FireStarter council envisioned a space where any curious community member could participate in classes and the pursuit of lifelong learning.

“The FABLab will continue to serve the same role it does for the career academy, but the intent is to expand the current offerings to other advanced STEM students in the system, as well as be open to STEM professionals and the general public alike,” Flesher says. “We encourage a co-working environment that leads to STEM exploration and activation from an organic growth model. We also hope to stir up STEM mentorship from the current and retired professionals that call our community home.”

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FireStarter FABLab

Some community members have ventured into the shop as curious students and left with the inspiration to begin their own business. Lifelong Warner Robins residents Matt and Tess Chambers were among the first to participate in the entrepreneurial council. They understood the value the collaboration could have for small businesses, but they didn’t see themselves as entrepreneurs until Tess took a class.

“My husband was teaching woodworking classes, and I would take other classes, learning a little at a time,” Tess says. She says she resisted Matt’s insistence that she take one of his woodworking classes because she thought the weeks-long course was too long. Tess instead wanted to switch to project-based classes where she could focus on completing one activity start to finish, learning how to use the machinery and techniques as she finished her product.

 

That’s really what planted the seed,” she says. “I wanted to get in the FABLab, see what’s available, and think about how we could combine the different services to fit my (project-based) model.”

The Chambers started hosting classes out of their dining room, and eventually, their home-grown business had flourished. Today, their shop, Against The Grain, offers hundreds of workshops, private parties and take-and-make kits that nurture creativity and help participants learn about the resources at FABLab. “There are other franchises out there similar to ours, but because of what the FABLab had, we didn’t have to invest thousands of dollars into the brand – we could use all the equipment right there,” Tess says.

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FireStarter FABLab

There’s a wealth of resources at the fingertips of residents in the region who visit the FABLab, including: computer lab space with CAD/CAM software; a conference area classroom with presentation equipment; a multifunction space; a machine room, including CNC machinery, power tools and hand tools; and a fully functioning woodworking space. The lab also features a photopolymer 3D printing machine; a fused deposition 3D printer, a machine dedicated to laser cutting and engraving; large and small-scale three-axis machining; vinyl and film cutting; 3D scanning; and circuit fabrication, assembly and testing.

Beginners are always welcome, regardless of whether they’re exploring options for a new business venture or expanding the reaches of the mind.

Tess reminds FABLab users to keep their options open; one never knows when creativity will spark a new career path.

“Do not be afraid to try any of it! Try every class, try every machine, no matter what it is,” Matt says. “Even if it’s something you think you might not be interested in, try it anyway. We need all the small businesses we can get!”

If you'd like to learn more about the Robins Region area, check out the latest edition of Livability: Robins Region