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Top 10 Challenges of Fab Lab ICC Part 1

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

I like to use a Top 10 format both in speaking and in writing. Ten is a manageable list that fits within the time and space restraints of most situations. I use “Top 10 Things You Should Know About Fab Lab ICC” a lot because the list can be altered easily as new items come up. Today’s list is one that highlights the Top 10 Challenges of Fab Lab ICC. It is a historical look at the challenges we’ve faced since our grand opening on October 1, 2014; some we still face today. I’m a believer that we are the sum of our experience and, generally, don’t think about what I’d do differently if we had it to do over. Still, in regard to these challenges, I’d change some things if I were setting up a new Fab Lab or maker space. 

Membership Management 

We’ve really struggled with member management, starting the tracking in Excel spread sheets, not bad if you only have ten members but when the number grows to 100- or 200-members management becomes cumbersome; knowing who is up for renewal, let alone notifying members to renew. We were recently introduced to a wonderful membership management application called Wild Apricot. It is a web-based system that provides complete membership management, including the renewal notices and even taking credit card payment. 

Technology 

This is a continuing challenge to learn the technologies involved in all the capabilities we have to offer, not only to be able help others learn, but to keep the machines up and running properly. Being located in a rural area means we don’t have “factory” technicians across town, and we have to do a lot of troubleshooting on our own. 

Inventory 

With the wide variety of capabilities and machines comes a need for a wide variety of supplies and materials. Some of the materials are not available locally so we offer them for sale to our members as a matter of convenience. We are preparing to implement a point of sale inventory system to help us better manage our supplies and materials. 

Database and Financial Management 

Early on, we made a decision to run the Lab like a business and implemented QuickBooks. That has greatly helped us with knowing our positions in cash, payables, receivables, sales and expenses. However, like many small businesses with which I work, we are not fully to a point of using management reports to better run the business. 

Everyone who visits or becomes involved with Fab Lab ICC becomes a “person of interest” to us. In the beginning, we used sign-in sheets when people visited, then entered the names into a spreadsheet. You can imagine how difficult it was to read people’s hand-writing. We finally have progressed to a web-based visitor sign-in form. We try to get everyone who comes to the lab to sign in when they arrive and out when they leave. The visits are stored in our new Zoho web database. Knowing the number of visitors, and now the reason for the visit and how long they stay provides a big advantage in the success of our grant-writing opportunities. 

Volunteer Program 

Our early philosophy of making our Fab Lab “available to the community” meant that we would always operate with a lean staff in order to keep our membership prices low, currently $125 per year for an individual. (In some cities, the maker spaces are charging as much as $80 per month for memberships. We believe that would be beyond the affordability of too many in our region.) 

We have recognized an effective volunteer program as essential in making the Lab, it’s capabilities and facilities available to our members. We have recently renewed our efforts to recruit and train volunteers to help us with the availability and operation of the Lab. 

We’ll take a look at the remaining Top 10 challenges in next week’s column. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks.  


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