- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The last time Larry Lamb broke his Xbox controller, he decided it would be the last time. It happened the same way as always. Lamb stood up with his headset still connected to the controller, knocked it to the floor and waved goodbye to another 75 bucks. Enough was enough.

He cobbled together a lanyard made from a swivel clip, Velcro and some strapping. Presto. With the controller secured to his body, Lamb could walk around the house, pour himself a cup of coffee and keep chatting with his gaming friends.

“It’s just a simple solution to a longtime gaming problem,” Lamb said.

His device worked so well, it wasn’t long before Lamb started thinking he could probably sell it. And it wasn’t too, too much later that he started working with the ProtoStripes Center at the Louisiana Business and Technology Center on a commercial design.

“I had a vision and (Prototype Designer) Van Le is helping me come up with a beautiful, sexy design,” Lamb said.

Lamb said he and ProtoStripes are still trying to solve one bug - the controller wants to flip upside down while attached - but once that’s solved, he hopes to move to production.

LBTC executive director Charles D’Agostino said helping inventors and entrepreneurs like Lamb is the reason for ProtoStripes. The service is available to everyone in Louisiana, whether they’re tenants in the LBTC business incubator or not.

The center recently added a 3-D printer, laser cutter and computer numerically controlled milling machine to go with a larger 3-D printer and 3-D scanner. The new equipment allows ProtoStripes to create more intricate designs with a higher degree of precision. All of the center’s equipment was purchased with about $110,000 in grants from the Delta Regional Authority, the Louisiana Business Incubation Association and Louisiana’s economic development department.

“We have always had these people, small businesses, innovators who came up with a product or technology or gadget,” D’Agostino said. “In the past, before 3-D printing became so economical, you would actually have to get a machine shop to machine something, and then you would test it and if it worked, good, and if didn’t work you would have to retool it.”

A person might have to go through as many as six or eight versions to get the prototype right, and that could cost $10,000, $20,000 or even $30,000, he said. The expense made it nearly impossible for a small business or inventor to get a product to the marketplace and test it.

ProtoStripes can make a prototype in about one-fourth the time at about one-tenth the cost of an out-of-state company, he said. On average, the center makes prototypes for less than $200.

Lee Wellington, executive director of the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, said investments in facilities like ProtoStripes are part of a growing trend at technical high schools, and two- and four-year colleges.

Mildred Osborne Charter School in New Orleans recently launched a new “makerspace” with a $126,100 grant from Capital One Bank, Propeller, an incubator that targets New Orleans-area entrepreneurs, and IDIYA, a New Orleans makerspace, workshop and design studio. Tulane University has spent more than $1 million to renovate and equip its just-opened Maker Space.

“I think the one thing that we’re noticing is that you don’t just see investments in 3-D printers. We’re also seeing investments in the kinds of programs that are helping students understand how to take products to market,” Wellington said.

Students learn how to fabricate a product using 3-D printers and how to build a business model to manufacture it, she said.

Thomas Wavering, executive director of the University of Oklahoma’s newly established Innovation Hub, said the idea behind these sorts of facilities is not just having a cool makerspace and tools for people to play with.

“What we’re trying to say is ‘OK, how does a place like Norman, Oklahoma, or Baton Rouge or wherever, how does that become more like Silicon Valley or Boston or Austin in terms of kind of an entrepreneurial ecosystem?’” he said.

Oklahoma created the Innovation Hub as a first step. The hub is a space where people from across the university and community, the technical and nontechnical, can connect and collaborate to support invention and entrepreneurship.

ProtoStripes opened in September 2014 and has made 104 prototypes for 42 companies. The products include a throttle body for performance autos; industrial tools; devices that allow surgeons to adjust the tension in tendons for people and horses; sports drink bottles; and a device that makes coffee cups spill-proof.

Matthew Magnuson, former chief technology officer of St. James Technologies, said the company used ProtoStripes on a number of projects, such as circuit boards.

The lower cost allowed Magnuson’s company to crank out improved versions of a product more quickly. Early on, Magnuson used an out-of-state 3-D printing firm.

The company did good work and would overnight the product. But the cost was high enough that St. James hesitated to use the out-of-state service, even though the company would have benefited by running its products through more iterations.

ProtoStripes’ lower costs removed that barrier, and that helped St. James speed up its design process, he said.

Magnuson said his firm, which was acquired last year by Associated Terminals, where he now works, also profited from the ProtoStripes staff’s flexibility.

“So if we’re on a Saturday and we’re like ‘Man, we want to see if this part works.’ We could call someone up and say, ‘Hey, can you come by?’” Magnuson said.

On more than one occasion, when St. James was really pushing the timeline, ProtoStripes made 3-D prints over the weekend.

“And no one’s going to do that for you. That to us, you couldn’t have paid for that service,” Magnuson said.

D’Agostino said there’s almost no limit to what 3-D printers can do. Oak Ridge Labs in Tennessee used a 3-D printer the size of a room to print the body of a Ford Shelby Mustang, dropped it on a chassis and engine, and drove it around the building.

“Just about anything you can imagine, you can make, which is just kind of crazy,” he said.

___

Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com

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