Partnership Gives Local Residents Real-World Design Experience at Polsky Exchange
Earlier this year, Daniel Czyz, PhD, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Chicago, realized he needed a product for his research that did not yet exist. For help, he turned to the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and to Bronzeville resident Maria Maxwell.
Maxwell, who had recently completed training in computer-aided design and robotics through the Bishop Arthur M. Brazier Foundation in Woodlawn in an effort to launch a second career, was serving as a design consultant at the Polsky Center’s Fab Lab––a suite of state-of-the-art fabrication equipment that is housed at the Polsky Exchange, the Polsky Center’s 34,000 square foot coworking space on 53rd Street.
Since last fall, the Brazier Foundation and the Polsky Center have been partnering to give the foundation’s students real-world design experience while helping to bring the ideas of Polsky Exchange members to life.
With Maxwell’s assistance, Czyz created an adapter plate that was specially sized for microscope chamber slides used in his research.
“I had a lot of experience in science and using research tools, but I had zero experience in designing them,” said Czyz, a 34-year-old postdoctoral scholar in microbiology, who joined the Polsky Exchange two years ago. “Working with the consultant eased my experiment because there is nothing else like that available on the market.”
Maxwell said it took her only two hours to design the adapter plate using measurements Czyz provided. “I was so excited, and nervous at the same time, to be involved in something so important,” said Maxwell, who worked on several design projects during a 15-week consultancy at the Fab Lab.
A major goal of the Polsky Center is to accelerate the commercialization of research by taking products from concept, to design, to production. Alyssa Berman-Cutler, director of community economic development initiatives at UChicago, said the partnership meets a need for the community and for the Polsky Center.
“The Brazier Foundation’s computer-aided design and robotics systems management training program is the only program of its kind on the mid-South Side,” said Berman-Cutler. “Their students were looking for real-world experience, and Exchange members are often in need of CAD work for the prototypes they wish to create in the Fab Lab.”
The Fab Lab includes 3D printers, routers, a laser cutter, and vinyl cutter, a spray booth, and woodworking tools that are available to Polsky Exchange members, which include UChicago students, faculty, and staff; partner institutions; and local residents. Elizabeth Koprucki, assistant director of the Fab Lab, notes that spaces housing this type of hardware get a lot of attention, but equally important is the software that runs the machines.
“Industrial design work can be expensive, and this gives our members a cost-effective option for seeing their creations through to production,” she explained. “We want members to know if they have an idea they should approach us. We’re open, we have resources, and if they don’t know how they can come to us, even if they don’t have the technology.
Up to six consultants from the Brazier Foundation work in teams of two to produce computer-aided design and drafting work for Polsky Exchange project teams of up to five members. Additionally, there is a Fab Lab internship position that has been filled this year by Carolyn Whitehead, a student in the Brazier Foundation CAD program. The program is a pilot that will continue if both parties remain interested.
“Our goal is to provide our students with manufacturing skills that are relevant in a 21st century workplace,” said Trista Bonds, training manager and manufacturing director at the Brazier Foundation. “Our CAD students are qualified to do two and three dimensional design work, which can then be uploaded to the Fab Lab machines and produced.”
Bonds adds that the Foundation’s program, which has been active since 2012, has three levels focused on electronics, machine controls and robotics.
Nikki Bravo, who is charged with administering and growing the foundation’s training program from a workforce development perspective, added that gaining hands-on experience at the Polsky Center Fab Lab removes a barrier for community members who are changing careers or who are unemployed or underemployed.
“This partnership allows our participants, who are mostly underemployed adult women with children, to get valuable work experience,” Bravo said. “While we cannot control market forces, we can begin to have a workforce development plan to support good jobs for community residents.”
The opportunity for new career options is what attracted Maxwell to design and robotics training. After a longtime career in human resources, she had been out of work for two years before signing up for the program.
“I was looking for a way to recreate myself. I wanted to do something that I would love and be good at,” said Maxwell, who now works full-time at the Apostolic Church and has been asked to help teach the robotics classes.
Through the partnership, the design consultants also receive memberships to the Polsky Exchange. Maxwell used hers to attend some of the classes the Polsky Center offers for entrepreneurs.
As for the adapter plate Maxwell sketched the designs for, Czyz says he is considering a provisional patent. Even if he does not pursue taking his product to market, his experience working with the design consultant has encouraged him to try other projects at the Fab Lab.
“I wanted to see what the Fab Lab is capable of because I have a few other ideas,” he said.
By Patricia Andrews-Keenan and Calmetta Coleman
Photos by Elizabeth Koprucki