Quian Washington, a junior at Marshall, observes a 3-D printer in action as it manufactures a Jumpman icon during Bethel New Life's Technology Innovation Day, April 30. (Michael Romain/Staff)

Philip Fairweather scanned the frenzy of Amberg Hall on the campus of Bethel New Life, 1140 N. Lamon Ave., as people at the forefront of 3-D printing technology interacted with people who barely knew the technology existed before visiting Bethel’s campus for a “Technology Innovation Day” held April 30. 

The event was co-sponsored by Blue|1647, a technology and innovation center with locations in St. Louis and several on the city’s South Side. According to the organization’s website, an Austin location is coming soon.

Some of the equipment was provided by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). Other organizations represented at the technology day included the Museum of Science and Industry, the Technology and Manufacturing Association, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois Extension. 

Students from Marshall Metro High School tinkered with collapsible 3-D printing technology that Liyan Wan said has been quietly revolutionizing China’s housing industry for some time now.

Wan, a Master of Architecture candidate who participates in the entrepreneurship program that Fairweather runs at Bethel New Life, said that the 3-D McMansions so prevalent in China take a third of the time to complete, cost 60 percent less to construct and are made with 80 percent less labor than homes built the ‘old-fashioned’ way.

According to 3ders.org, a 3-D printing trade publication, the company that builds the printed homes uses a gargantuan printer that measures nearly 500 feet long and 20 feet high. The contraption uses ‘ink’ made from recycled construction materials, which comprises materials such as steel, cement and glass fiber. The printer secretes layers of this ‘ink’ on top of each other to form tightly packed building blocks, according to an RT article. 

The day was also an introduction of sorts. Bethel opened a 3-D printing lab of its own less than a month ago after acquiring funding to pay someone to staff the space. Fairweather said Bethel’s lab, which would serve as an extension of its entrepreneurship program, may be the first of its kind to open in a low-income community and to be accessible to the public for free.

“The whole purpose of putting this [technology day] together is to try to shift the collective mindset from consuming all the time to producing and manufacturing,” said Fairweather. “If you’re going to build any type of wealth, you’re going to need to start making things.”

Fairweather, an entrepreneur and inventor himself, practices what he teaches. In the 1990s, he invented a sports training product that “builds speed, endurance and vertical jump.” 

“It’s still in the Eastbay catalog now,” he said. “Jackie Jorner-Kersee was on our board of directors. I sold the product all around the world and once I sold the company, I just collected royalties off the patents.”

Last year, Fairweather joined Bethel to jumpstart its entrepreneurship training program, a 14-week course that covers “business plans, marketing, financing, accounting, risk management, legal issues, and more” according to the program’s webpage. Participants who qualify could receive loans up to $10,000 to start a business and up to $25,000 loans for a business that already exists. This year, 32 participants were selected from a pool of more than 70 applicants, said participant Chenel Darby.

“It’s like a mini MBA,” said Darby, a healthcare professional who wants to start her own health awareness company. The West Side resident was seated behind Wan’s demo table. Every once and a while, she would help explain her peer’s 3-D designs to fascinated participants like Quian Washington.

“I just like the fact that this is open to the public,” said Washington, a junior at Marshall. He was situated near a 3-D machine that printed out colorful Jumpman icons. Other students stood entranced as their faces were scanned and a machine labored on 3-D busts of their images. 

Washington was one of about a dozen Marshall students who were at Bethel with physical education teacher Jennifer Jones, who is also a participant in Bethel’s entrepreneurship program. She said she wants the 3-D printing technology to be merged into her school’s curriculum so that it doesn’t seem so foreign to students; that it may even serve as an inspiration for them to want to make the things other people merely consume. 

Michael Neil, a Science, Engineering, Technology and Math (STEM) program coordinator with U of I Extension, said that students are slowly beginning to see the possibilities of STEM education.

“I do see that, at least as far as participation and awareness goes, the basic understanding of what can be done is improving,” he said.
For Fairweather, who visualizes technology as a means of flattening economic barriers to opportunity, that’s all for the good. 

“With 3-D printing, you can create and design your own stuff at home without having to go to a manufacturer and develop a mold and a prototype and all of those things,” he said. “This is a way to engage people and it democratizes manufacturing.” 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com