Inside NextFab Studio, Philadelphia’s Newest Maker Space

We speak to Michael d’Amato, creator of the Fluid Ribbon Chair, about Philadelphia’s next paradise for inventor/techno-geeks: NextFab Studio.

NextFab Studio bills itself as “a membership-based, high-tech workshop and prototyping center– Philadelphia’s “gym for innovators.”  Members (individuals, companies, institutions) will be able to build their own 3D printers, for example, in the brand new facility underway in Southwest Center City, generating anything from a new human ear to a model chocolate cityscape.

At 21,000 square feet, a former custom ironwork shop run by traditional craftsmen is being converted into dynamic space for sophisticated machinery, a chem lab, a microlab, laser engravers, vehicle lift, forklift, 14 foot ceilings, classrooms, large photo/video studio, private studios and more—a paradise for inventor/techno-geeks.

But, if you’re just a regular person with a dream, professional staffers (artists, designers, engineers) will train you to safely use that imposing machine over there–the one you never heard of–so you can realize your own project.

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NextFab is strongly committed to community outreach. They want manufacturing and innovation to be accessible to all. NextFab may become its own bulwark against the erosion of American manufacturing.

NextFab president and founder Evan Malone, Ph. D., speculates that, “We’re on the verge of a new way of working.” He envisions an agile, freelance manufacturing force that isn’t tied to rigid organizational structure or place. Mobile manpower and skills would coalesce around a range of complex challenges from urban planning to product design.

To better understand NextFab‘s back-to-hands-on manufacturing mission, one person’s journey from sketchpad to finished product provides insight.

Michael d’Amato took the NextFab plunge this year, developing and testing a prototype for his new “Fluid Ribbon Chair”. His project was initiated at the original, much smaller NextFab Studio next to the University of Pennsylvania campus. He’s looking forward to starting small scale manufacturing at the new NextFab Studio when it opens this fall. Here’s our conversation:

Joseph G. Brin: How, specifically, has NextFab Studio worked for you?

Michael d’Amato: NextFab has been my prototyping studio for the bamboo Fluid Ribbon Chair. I needed a place to laminate bamboo tensile specimens, CNC router the specimens, and the form mold for the chair. Then had to laminate the bamboo, vacuum bag and press the chair into the mold, heat cure it, and cut/finish the shell into the Fluid Ribbon Chair shape. I also needed 6’x7′ vinyl banners for the booth at ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, this pas May). All of that was done at NextFab. It was one month of planning and logistics, then two long days of execution that produced the bamboo fluid ribbon chair the night before the show.

Everyone at NextFab was so supportive and excited about the project. Evan Malone was particularly accommodating when I had critical parts of the process and needed access to equipment at specific times.

JGB: How difficult would product development have been without NextFab?

Md’A: I really didn’t have a viable alternative. NextFab was necessary!

JGB: Apparently, anyone can join and learn at NextFab but you already had technical training. What was your design background leading to the Fluid Ribbon chair?

Md’A: None, I took everything apart when I was young, studied microbiology, biomechanics, and entrepreneurship; then worked with startups for my career. This chair seems to be launching me into the design space, and I’m finally seeing the light.

JGB: Would you now consider yourself more an engineer, industrial designer or furniture designer?

Md’A: I don’t often fit in labeled boxes. I suppose I designed a piece of furniture using engineering, but I’m not sure what will be next.They used to call me “Michael Michael Motorcycle” in school, because I could run fast, but I’m not a runner either.

JGB: What was the original spark for the Ribbon Chair?

Md’A: My brother called me at 9:43am July 4th, 2011. At the time, all of my entrepreneurial projects were in the gutter. I lost everything and was praying for some god-given direction. My brother told me about his aching back from years of sitting at the computer. He tried every ergonomic device he could find, but nothing worked.

I started thinking about movement and remembered from biomechanics how important movement is to joint lubrication, cushioning, and fatigue. Not being a designer, I must say that a bit of divine inspiration led to this idea of splitting the seat to allow movement, and the fluid ribbon chair evolved into form a few days later.

Perhaps I should elaborate. It was divine inspiration + everything I have ever learned. The chair isn’t just an inspired shape; the chair follows body curves and is engineered with the rigor of a NASA project, even using some of their own anthropometric data. Materials, dimensions, and geometries were engineered to optimize strength, flexibility, and to accommodate the correct biomechanics.

JGB: You weren’t at all inspired by precedents such as Frank Gehry’s Wiggle chair, for example?

Md’A: With all due respect to many great designers and their chairs, I honestly was not mindfully inspired by any of them. I haven’t been in the design world, and only now starting to see what incredible designs exist. I subsequently noticed similarities with Frank Gehry’s Wiggle chair, Verner Panton’s S chair, and Gerrit Reitveld’s Z chair. Biomechanics inspired the concept, and the natural form of the human body inspired the design.

JGB: Is the ultimate Fluid Ribbon Chair one material or another or doesn’t it matter?

Md’A: The compliance and dynamics are about the same since the chair thickness is adjusted based on the material strength. The aluminum is obviously a bit colder to the touch than bamboo. Twenty percent of people who try it love both. Forty percent love the bamboo and the other 40 percent love the aluminum.

JGB: How do you distinguish it from other chairs on the market?

Md’A: When I was at ICFF, I noticed three distinct phases of peoples’ experience in the chair. First, they were visually drawn to the shape and the split seat. Second, they felt the supportive lumbar and the contoured seat. This would result in the typical ooooosss and aaaahhhss. Then, I would explain the movement and once they started turning, rolling, shifting weight and feeling how the chair follows their movements and massages their back, their eyes widened and they would say, “Wow! I’ve never felt anything like that!” Followed by, “How much is it?”

In short, it’s a sculpture loaded with biomechanics.

JGB: So, how much is it?

Md’A: I set up a project and listed the same bamboo fluid ribbon chairs with prices increasing from $150. Then at ICFF, I price tested down from $1,500. Both strategies pointed me to the same number: $495. I could get more for it, but I want it to be more accessible.

JGB: Who was your first customer?

Md’A: The first customer was an individual who loved the design and commissioned the first Aluminum Fluid Ribbon Chair.

JGB: What is your marketing strategy for the Fluid Ribbon Chair?

Md’A: I will sell direct in order to keep the price low and will collaborate with non-furniture stores to display and use the chair. I have already lined up several hair salons, clothing boutiques, chiropractors offices, shared workspaces, etc. where people can experience the chair casually.

JGB: Who is your target customer for the chair?

Md’A: People from all over the world seem to love the chair. People have contacted me about using it for restaurants, cafes, music chairs for an orchestra, medical conditions like pudendal nerve entrapment, chiropractors,  office chairs, dining chairs, accent chairs, etc. Since it is sculptural and functional, it has many homes.

Ultimately, I want to get them into schools.  Research is finally illuminating how physical activity and movement helps kids focus. I want the chair to challenge the idea of sitting still.

JGB: Since you don’t believe in sitting still, what’s next for Fluid Ribbon?

Md’A: I will be building the custom-bending machine for the aluminum chair next. First production chairs will be ready near the end of the Summer 2012, then slipcovers in leather and neoprene. Might be fun to sled on it this winter!

JGB: Do you have ideas about getting things done that would benefit good designers who aren’t particularly strong in business?

Md’A: Open your heart and let yourself be led by your soul without fear. Use your mind only to solve simple, specific problems that you are equipped to solve. If there are too many things you can’t do, then think hard about whether you are working on the right idea. All of this will help you make the best decisions on your path.

Fall in love, but not with your idea. Most ideas won’t become products and most products won’t become businesses. Start with the best idea available and find out as quickly and inexpensively as possible if it is a viable product. Test if there is a market by trying to raise money from customers, not investors. Then calculate whether reasonable profits could support your lifestyle or not. If not, then collaborate with others who have synergistic products that make the overall value greater. Last, join NextFab Studio and do it!

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia.


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