When Congressman Bill Foster was raising his daughter, Christine, he once bought an old mill drill machine in the hope she would start designing and creating whatever inventions her young mind could manufacture. The effort didn't result in a Fortune 500 company, but she did walk away with some basic design and machine skills as well as some Styrofoam toys.
Now Foster wants to bring an upgraded version of that same learning process to the 11th Congressional District he represents.
Foster introduced a bill last week to establish a National Fab Lab network across the country to catalyze the manufacturing sector. A Fab Lab is a project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that brings a lab equipped with basic design and fabrication machines and materials and opens it up for public use. Enterprising minds or local inventors can use the lab to create prototypes of products that can either become the foundation to create a new business or a launchpad to an education that local manufactures would find desirable.
"Kids don't make stuff anymore," Foster said. "You can't really take apart an iPhone and put it back together as something else. You've lost the generation that used to modify hot rods. This is a backdoor way to get kids into this sort of thing. Maybe they'll even enjoy their next math course."
Steve Kase would enjoy a workforce with skills he could use. Kase is the president of ASK Products, an Aurora-based manufacturer of electric components for companies such as ComEd. He is also the chairman of the Tooling and Manufacturing Association. Kase attended a discussion with Foster Thursday about the potential impact of a Fab Lab becoming a permanent part of local learning institution such as Waubonsee Community College.
Kase said a Fab Lab could be key in training the local labor pool because Aurora and Kane County have a skill deficit right now when it comes to manufacturing.
"We have a problem because we can't find enough people for our advanced manufacturing," Kase said. "Adding something like this to the programs already at Waubonsee, you could go from being basically computer illiterate to being able to earn $60,000 to $80,000 within a year. And it's because of the hands-on aspect this provides. The hands-on is huge."
The current problem with making Fab Labs a local reality is funding. Foster's legislation would create a standardized template for the Fab Labs that would see each of them have the same quality equipment, training and staffing. That would make securing grants and local sponsorships much easier for potential hosting sites such as Waubonsee. One lab requires about $200,000 of equipment and materials, plus staff and a hosting location to get up and running.
Waubonsee President Christine Sobek said she's wanted to bring a Fab Lab to the downtown Aurora campus for about two years. She already has a classroom on the second floor in mind as a future Fab Lab home. Sobek welcomed Foster's legislation as a new path to bringing a Fab Lab to the school.
First Foster must get his bill through Congress. He's already enlisted 14th District Congressman Randy Hultgren as a co-sponsor to help rally Republican support. Foster said Sen. Dick Durbin has already promised help in the Senate if Foster can get the bill through the House.