Investing in an Inventive Environment

by Gordy Slack

The 1,300-square-foot room on the first floor of Sutardja Dai Hall smells of fresh paint and possibility. It is empty now, except for two large crates containing heavy equipment destined for the Marvell Nanolab, three stories above. But listening to Dan Chapman, Curator of the Tech Museum and Senior Artist at CITRIS, describe plans for the space, it is easy to picture the room, the future site of the CITRIS Invention Lab, or i-Lab, humming with busy engineers and the devices they have dreamed up. The future will unfold here as those dreams take shape in resin, wood, and molded plastic.

“A core part of the CITRIS mission has always been to turn academic accomplishments into real-world solutions to California’s most pressing problems,” says CITRIS Director Paul Wright. The i-Lab will enable CITRIS researchers and their students to quickly make high-grade prototypes of their devices under the tutelage of expert industrial designers and engineers. It is scheduled to open for the fall semester and be fully operational by spring 2013.

The new i-Lab will have a natural fit with the Marvell Nanolab, as they both focus on innovative technologies, just on different scales.

“The i-Lab will operate in a way similar to the Marvell Nanolab, except it will develop devices on a different scale,” says Steven DeMello, CITRIS Director of Healthcare. By providing access to thin-film deposition and etching tools, photo lithography, pattern transfer, and doping tools, Marvell helps researchers make prototypes of new devices at the nano scale. “The i-Lab will help them do the same thing, but at the product scale, or the peta scale, with access to 3-D printers, circuit board milling machines, electrical works stations, and other fabrication tools,” says DeMello.

The two labs will be more than parallel institutions: chips, MEMS, smart materials, and other tiny devices developed in Marvell will themselves become components of the larger devices fabricated at the i-Lab. The new facility will be a vital piece of the CITRIS “pipeline” running from the innovative minds of researchers through the Nanolab, the i-Lab, and into the markets, industries, and streets of the real world.

One project that could have benefited from the i-Lab is Professor Alex Bayen’s sensor drifters, which monitor water quality and movement in the Sacramento River Delta. The MEMS were developed at the Nanolab, and the first versions of the motorized floating devices themselves were “constructed here without this facility,” says Chapman. Two more generations of prototypes were needed before the current devices were developed. “If we had had the capability to prototype the drifters with the i-Lab, the development time of the fleet would probably have been shorter,” he says.

Bayen’s project succeeded after several years of device development, and culminated with the current build of the drifters which relies on Android smartphones. “It would have been interesting to investigate how the pipeline could have been made shorter by using the i-Lab,” says Bayen.

The distance between the validation of an invention’s concept and its commercialization is sometimes referred to as the “valley of death,” where most inventions meet their demise. A lot of wasted time, money, and effort end up in that valley, whether the product ultimately succeeds or not. “Often, the weaknesses of an idea may not be evident until it has already entered the valley, where it may languish, supported with dribs and drabs of funding for years, before it ultimately fails,” says DeMello.

On the other hand, many viable projects never make it out of the valley, simply because making good prototypes requires costly and inaccessible machinery and expertise, and without them a project is severely handicapped. It is extremely difficult to generate sufficient support for a device that is not yet real.

Making better prototypes earlier in the development process can help in both cases: viable projects will shine sooner, and “puppies”—projects that look good at first but turn out to be dogs later on—“will start to bark sooner,” says DeMello. Letting developers prototype a device early on, while still on the conceptualization side of the valley, can make its weaknesses clear enough to jettison the project and allocate resources where they will more likely pay off.

Chapman points toward the far end of the future i-lab, which will be divided into three parts, each representing one of the lab’s three main functions. “Down there will be the pure hacker space,” he says. Workbenches will be equipped with table saws, drill presses, routers, sewing and gluing stations, wrenches and cutters of all sizes, vacuum-forming and injection-molding machines, vinyl cutters, printers, MakerBots, and lots of materials.

The second part of the lab is the teaching area, says Chapman. Its whiteboards and large demonstration tables will be first put to work in the fall when Paul Wright and his colleague Björn Hartmann, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, teach Interactive Device Design, a class on prototyping for high-tech design. The class will be taught in the i-Lab, and the tools and equipment will be available to students for their projects.

The third part of the lab is the “service bureau” area, where the higher-end machines such as the laser cutter and more sophisticated 3-D printers will live. This equipment will mainly be operated by staff or used during instruction. When CITRIS associates need to make a prototype, however, these machines will be at their service. They can develop a 3-D model, send it along in a standardized format such as an STL file, and lab staff can help them print it or build it. This will be as easy for developers at Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz as it will be for those at Berkeley.

“Our ambition is to take a good idea all the way through to a launched product,” says DeMello. “Until now, CITRIS has been focused on the early stages. Now we are moving from pilots and proofs of concept closer to the final phase. Adding sophistication to the prototypes lets us anticipate questions like, ‘What does the device really look like? Can we manufacture it easily? Will people fall in love with it?’ A robust and polished prototype bumps up the odds of getting funding and seeing an idea through to a successful end.”