CHAMPAIGN — At the Illinois MakerLab on the third floor of the Gies College of Business, 3D-printed creations line the walls, from a tyrannosaurus rex head to chess sets to protein molecules to a roughly 60-foot chain wrapped around a 6-foot 3D-printed human.
“All of this on this printer. He had to stay up two nights to do it,” said Vishal Sachdev, the director of the lab. “He won a weight challenge with this. He was an industrial design student.”
The 3D printers can be used by students, faculty and the community, with faculty and students paying more to use it.
One researcher is using it to print out a maze for a mouse, Sachdev said, and a company in Chicago is using it to print an actual product that helps children with motor disabilities pick things up.
“Twenty percent of the audience is Gies, 80 percent is from across campus,” he said.
They host workshops every Thursday to teach people how to use the printers, which Sachdev said don’t require coding knowledge.
“The software has become so intuitive now,” he said.
The lab, which is six years old, “has taken on a life of its own,” Sachdev said. “Over a year, we get about 1,000 people through the lab.”
The lab is one of the manufacturers being highlighted by the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. as part of this year’s manufacturing month.
While it’s not a traditional manufacturer, Sachdev said, the MakerLab fits in with today’s manufacturing environment.
“Yes, it is more expensive than traditional (manufacturing), but the benefit is in flexibility and lower waste,” he said. “You’re not really cutting away stuff; you’re just building what you want. So it’s a new paradigm of manufacturing, and we want more people to understand what is possible, and then find the cost-benefit equation: Where do we use this? Where do we use traditional? Do we use hybrid models?”
The lab is self-supported, he said, offering services from printing to prototyping to 3D scanning.
Already equipped with 19 Ultimaker 3D printers, the lab will be adding nine more printers next month, which will allow them to print orders 24/7, Sachdev said.
“We’re getting new capacity,” he said. “It maybe used to take us a week, two weeks to do” small batches of about 100 or 200 units.
“We’d love to have more community members, Research Park members or anyone else use that capability,” Sachdev said. “This one right now is still restricted by a human needing to come do it. But with the new capability, it will be internet-accessible, and we can put prints on and then it’ll take it off automatically.”
On Friday, they opened up the lab to tours as part of Manufacturing Month, which will continue to highlight different manufacturers.
Employers such as Litania Sports Group in Champaign and APL Engineered Materials in Urbana will be open for tours later in the month. More details are available at mfgday.com.
Manufacturing is not as common a job as it used to be in the Champaign-Urbana and Danville metro areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2000, more than 12,000 people in the C-U area were employed in manufacturing. This year, it’s been about 7,500.
And in the Danville area, manufacturing employment dropped from about 10,000 employees in 1990 to less than 5,000 this year.
Despite the declining numbers, Champaign County Economic Development executive director Carly McCrory said Manufacturing Month is becoming more popular.
“It’s grown quite a bit over the last five years,” she said.
Indirectly, each county employs about 12,000 people in manufacturing, according to a recent report from the Illinois Manufacturing Association. Manufacturing accounted for 7 percent of Champaign County’s economic output and 27 percent of Vermilion’s, according to the IMA.
McCrory said she hopes the manufacturing month will help show that manufacturing is not just dirty factory jobs, the way people may think of it.
“A lot of people think of being on a facility floor, running machines,” McCrory said. “For a lot of local employers, and Litania Sports Group is a great example because it’s based and headquartered here, there’s tons of jobs all across the spectrum, from accounting to marketing to exports to sales.”
Litania owns the Gill brand, which makes vaulting poles, javelins, discuses and other field equipment.
About 300 people attended the tours last year, McCrory said, drawing everyone from legislators to community members.
“The jobs have changed a lot,” she said. “It’s really an excellent opportunity, and we have local employers that are hiring.”