There’s a lot to work with inside the University of Montana’s new Innovation Factory.
The space’s furnishings include sewing machines, power tools, 3D printers, a laser cutter and, in one corner, a “liquid galaxy display” with wraparound screens for displaying terrain and animations.
The Factory’s directors, faculty members Elizabeth Dove and Brad Allen, envision an equally eclectic set of products taking shape here — everything from an “esports” arena for serious video gamers to an interactive tree model for the new Missoula Public Library. The Innovation Factory, abbreviated as IF, is set to open Friday with 30 days of public events.
“What we hope IF is,” said Allen, “is kind of a place for campus to take risks.”
He and Dove have been involved with this project since last year, when Scott Whittenburg, UM’s vice president for research and creative scholarship, rented the old bookstore space on the second floor of the University Center. “He had a broad idea about wanting to have a collaborative center for interdisciplinary exchange,” said Dove, "and started to lead meetings about what that might look like."
This kind of thinking came naturally to Dove and Allen. “I think that artists are probably interdisciplinary by nature,” said Dove. “We're kind of omnivores in terms of what interests us and what we might explore.”
She, Allen and the Innovation Factory’s other leaders have spent the past year outfitting the space with the supplies that artisans, inventors and tinkerers might need. The front area is what’s called a “tinker space,” which Allen describes as “a DIY material- and tool-heavy exploration studio.” A sewing machine and 3D printers have already been set up. Shelves and racks already hold, or will hold, other tools, protective gear, robotics and sensor kits, fabric, cardboard and, of course, duct tape.
There’s plenty of space to move around the tables, chairs, racks and whiteboards, and most of them are mobile. “The idea of an artist's studio is that your studio changes as your work changes,” Allen explained, “ ... and so everything we could, that we could put on wheels, is on wheels.”
The laser cutter and some of the heavier machines are in a back room, where their use will be monitored.
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All of this, Allen and Dove hope, will enable UM students and community members to try out ideas before investing heavily in them. “We want this to be a prototyping facility, not a production facility,” he said. “If you're from the community and want to come in and try to prototype a new design for a thing, let's do that. That's cool. You want to come in and try to run a thousand parts through the laser cutter that you're gonna sell? That's not OK. You're taking up time from the machine that it could be innovating, it could be exploring.”
They’re still figuring out how to provide access to the space. While the Factory is a nonprofit, some of its machines will need to be serviced. A new light bulb at the back of the laser cutter, for instance, costs $500.
“We think it'll either be a small fee for a membership to this space that covers things like that, or it will be a by-the-minute or by-the-hour usage on this machine,” he said. And while Allen hopes the Innovation Factory’s users will take risks, they’ll also have to take precautions. “Even if you've used a laser cutter somewhere else, you have to go through our training, and it'll be pretty substantial,” he said.
Even before the Factory officially opens, one of its interns, UM senior Zoe Sykora, has already had a chance to hone and apply her skills there.
“Our first project was the truck tailgate speakers,” in which she and her co-workers fashioned Bluetooth speakers out of portable truck tailgates. “I had to learn how to cut (them) apart, learn how to plasma cut,” the art major said. “That was a really awesome experience for me.”
Even bigger projects are now in the works. UM biologists Diana Six and John McCutcheon are using it to develop an exhibit for the new Missoula Public Library. Six explained that they plan to build a tree that will hold displays about forest biology. “It’s going to be cool because it’s going to be built with windows and touchpads that people of different ages can interact with,” Six said.
A project like this brings together multiple disciplines, and she’s found the Innovation Factory well-suited to the task. “John and I bring in the science, and then there’s the artists who are working with us,” she said. “We can bring all that together in the Innovation Factory to come up with a really fun and educational display.”
The Innovation Factory will officially launch with a public programming series entitled “30 Days of Innovation” to begin Friday, Nov. 8. For more information visit umt.edu/innovation-factory/calendar.php.