My Trip to Nova Labs’ MakerSpace in Reston: An Uplifting Experience!

Last month, a group of us from the Washington CTO council visited Nova Labs in Reston.

Nova Labs is part of the maker movement that has mushroomed around the country. This movement is a confluence of things coming together including 1) open source hardware that promotes advancement in hardware design though common standards and crowds sourcing, much like the open source software, 2) the availability of some highly-advanced machines such as 3-D printing, high-precision laser cutters at a price point within the reach of hobbyists, and 3) the do-it-yourself (DIY) mindset that encourages participants to make stuff (hence the term “makers”). There are over 1,000 such makerspaces in the country.

Reston (a suburb of Washington DC) is a home for major software companies in the country, but is also known for its steep commercial real estate prices. So it was hard for me to imagine a tech shop with laser cutters, CNC machines in the heart of Reston. But founders of Nova Labs were determined to setup a tech shop in the backyard of these companies hoping to attract their workers. After an extensive search they managed to acquire 1,600 square feet of space very close to where I work.

Here are some pictures I took during my visit:

This is a high-precision laser cutter. If you have a drawing — a science project, home improvement or just about anything, really — this machine can cut it for you. It can cut through wood, plastic, or metal.

Better yet, simply send the drawing to Ponoko.com and they will make the parts for you!

Even I (for whom tracing a line is difficult) can get it right!

This is the popular 3-D printer MakerBot. It can “print” a 3-D object using layers of melted plastic. 3-D printers used to cost tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago. But now you can get one for close to $1,000.

Imagine being able to draw a 3-D image using some CAD software and then sending the output to a 3-D printer. Makerbot even makes a 3-D scanner. So you can scan an existing object, make some tweaks and “print” it again.

This is a CNC machine. It is basically a power tool (grinding, cutting, milling etc.) controlled by a software program. Typically you would take a piece of wood and feed the machine instructions to precisely cut out patterns.

As you can imagine, together these machines provide an ultimate prototyping lab for anyone. These machines were available only to professionals just a few years back. But now with the reduced price point, these machines are serving as catalyst for the maker movement.

So why am I so excited about the makers movement?

  • If you can imagine a 2-D or 3-D picture, you can manufacture it.
  • Making stuff with your own hands is itself a learning experience.
  • Applying the ideas of open sourcing to hardware will only make these machines better and less expensive.

This kind of high-precision, innovative and software-driven manufacturing may be the only silver lining amongst the dark clouds of receding American manufacturing. I plan to enroll in a laser cutting class with my eight-year-old daughter. I encourage you to do the same.

About Vishwas Lele

Vishwas Lele serves as Chief Technology Officer at Applied Information Sciences, Inc. Mr. Lele is responsible for assisting organizations in envisioning, designing, and implementing enterprise solutions. Mr. Lele brings close to 24 years of experience and thought leadership to his position, and has been at AIS for 18 years. A noted industry speaker and author, Mr. Lele serves as Microsoft Regional Director for the Washington, D.C. area and is a member of Windows Azure Insiders group. Additionally, Mr. Lele received an MVP (Most Valuable Professional) for Solution Architecture.

  • Nikolai

    Hi Wishwas, Nikolai from Nova Labs here. Thanks for a nice write-up! 

    Regarding US manufacturing, you might be interested to read this post: http://store.harryepstein.com/dailydispatch/2012/11/estwing-pb-18-made-in-the-usa/

    Hand tools s manufacture is not the most glamorous industry, but I recall reading similar accounts about complex machine tools. Time delays and expense of shipping and remote support makes certain types of US-made machinery quite competitive, for US market anyway.

    I also have a couple of comments. Our laser cannot cut metal, it’s just not the right wavelength or power level for that. We can mark/engrave it though. Ever seen those Macbooks with tattooed lids? Our laser can do that.

    Laser-cutting stuff yourself is much more satisfying than getting Ponoko do that for you. And you get to learn new things. After some practice, it’s a lot faster, too. 

    My kids are particularly fascinated by 3D printer making something. We do have kid-appropriate classes and events occasionally (soap-making, wire jewelry, taking things apart – most recent ones). We are also are planning to ramp up STE(a)M-type activities. I’d suggest registering on our web site so you can be in the loop of ongoing discussions; we do advertise our events on Meetup, but mailing lists is where actual discussions are going on.