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[November 19, 2012]
The Philadelphia Inquirer Joseph N. DiStefano column
Nov 18, 2012 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- At 2025 Washington Ave., on a wide South Philly street lined with stone and pipe dealers, crews have spent the last two months laying concrete footings, installing heating, cooling, and ventilating equipment, soundproofing, wiring, winching, piping, and preparing to install computer-controlled plasma cutters, lathes, grinders, robotic painters, 3D printers, and other cutting-edge machines, for an inventors' dream workshop. Its owners hope it will revive Philadelphia manufacturing for digital times.
They're building the second NextFab -- five times larger, at 21,000 square feet, than Penn and Cornell grad Evan Malone's original four-year-old machine-and-design center at the University City Science Center in West Philadelphia.
This new NextFab will open next month, if Peco Energy gets the 3,000-volt switchgear hooked up in time and the big machines all arrive on schedule through the trailer-high doors and docks.
The $4 million renovation at landlord Francesco Salini's former ironworks is led by construction supervisor Mike Bonacci from W.S. Cumby Inc., Springfield, Delaware County. Malone joined him Friday to check the day's progress, including work on the conference rooms, rental offices, lounge, and first-floor cafe (to be run by the folks from Cafe L'Aube in Fairmount; Malone and his wife, Jill Weber, a Penn-trained archaeologist, run Jet Wine Bar and Rex Market, both on South Street). Other spaces include one for a branch of the Chicago design-equipment sales firm Inventables, which Malone described as "Home Depot for inventors." Jay Olman, a Philadelphia engineer for Benjamin Ashpole's Bashpole Inventions of Indiana, says he used the original location's high-pressure plasma cutter and other metalworking tools to develop his firm's fold-up stainless steel Pocket Grill.
"It's wonderful to be able to make our designs, implement them at NextFab, and then go out to the woods for a field test, all in one week," Olman told me. "It's not just a machine shop. It's a community." UE Life Sciences chief executive Mihir Shah found the first NextFab on a visit from his base at neighboring Drexel University. "From oscilloscopes to digital acquisition cards to computer software to computer-aided technology development to prototyping skills and robotics -- everything a small company needs but almost never has the budget to have -- it's at NextFab," Shah told me.
"I'm thrilled they are growing out of [the West Philly] space," he said, and the bigger machines will make it worth his drive to South Philly.
The old site's easy access became a problem in April, when an elderly driver crashed through its glass wall and wrecked welding equipment, narrowly missing a member of NextFab's 16-member staff.
Malone says the group has gained from the patronage of artists like sculptor Miguel Antonio Horn, based at the ex-Philadelphia Traction Co. trolley factory on Haverford Avenue. "They push the equipment much more than the nuts-and-bolts guys," Malone said, smiling.
Malone says a government-backed partnership with the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center and other groups will help NextFab work directly with industrial employers to improve processes and technologies.
They'll work with small firms, too, taking NextFab-built models to mass produce at contract manufacturers like Interprod L.L.C. in Eagleville and Zober Industries in Croydon that "are emerging into this great niche," Shah told me.
"Artists, designers, engineers, they all come to NextFab," Shah added.
-- Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or follow @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.
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