A slight buzz from a vacuum former or flash from a laser cutter may be unusual to see and hear in a traditional library, but not at Virginia Tech. This fall, a new Prototyping Studio opened in a large space on the fourth floor of Newman Library. Hokies can invent, design, and prototype all in one place. This technology-packed space is the brainchild of University Libraries team members Max Ofsa, Jonathan Bradley, Patrick Tomlin, Scott Fralin, and Sara Sweeney-Bear.

“The steps from idea to object can be more complex, fluid, and iterative than is often realized,” said Tomlin. “Ideas often morph and change over time. We want to help guide that multistep process of ideation, revision, and creation - the process of prototyping - so that students can maximize their creativity and see results in the shortest amount of time possible.”

The Prototyping Studio will absorb the 3D Design Studio and is the newest in Newman Library’s network of studios that includes the Studios Technology Lending DeskMedia Recording StudioVirtual Environments Studio, and Fusion Studio

“Providing our studios to all patrons at no cost impacts our community by allowing for risk-free exploration of ideas and projects,” said Ofsa. “It also provides a way for people to familiarize themselves with new technologies even if their funds or knowledge are limited.”

The goal of the Prototyping Studio is to create a space for students, faculty, and community members to stretch their imaginations and prototype as easily as possible all while building their confidence as creators and innovators. 

“From the outside it may seem like the Prototyping Studio is just a standard maker space, but at the core we are delivering a true prototyping space for modern makers,” said Ofsa.

The studio features 3D printers (FDM, metal, resin, and bio-resin), a CNC milling router, laser cutter, vacuum former, PCB mill, PCB printer, a huge collection of electronics equipment, and a variety of hand tools that can enable work in foam cutting, clay molding, carving, resin casting, sewing, and the ability to make both hard and flexible boards to accommodate devices such as wearable technology. It will also be the only place on campus that provides all library patrons access to do metal 3D printing. All library studios are free for patrons to use, and the Prototyping Studio is no exception. 

“I think that the interdisciplinary nature of the library makes it a natural location for a resource as diverse and student-centered as the Prototyping Studio,” said Tomlin. “For this reason, students don’t need any prior experience, or need to have a particular academic or departmental affiliation to use the studio. It isn’t dependent on having a course or research assignment to complete. Much like the library always has, we just want to help the university community realize their ideas.”

“The studio is special because of our access model,” said Bradley. “Other makerspaces exist on campus, but our goal is to be available to everyone and to make getting started as easy as possible. We think the Prototyping Studio will greatly expand the reach of our experiential learning opportunities and help the University Libraries reach some of the goals of the modern research library, which includes providing access to more than just books and articles.”

A student employee with leather work gloves examines a piece of equipment.
Student employee Jared Harris experiments with new tools in order to create documentation for the studio. Photo by Trevor Finney.

Scholarship comes in many different forms and students are increasingly asked to produce work and to engage in research that requires learning new skills and developing new mindsets in the process. 

Virginia Tech puts great emphasis on experiential learning and what can be more experiential than learning how to laser cut a piece of acrylic for the first time,” said Tomlin. 

“I am passionate about expanding people’s ability to create,” said Ofsa. “Given the opportunity, people tend to create amazing things. Often it is the lack of opportunity that squanders a great idea or stalls it from seeing fruition. My hope is to provide a space that brings out the creativity of our community and expands our collective skillset.” 

The team intends to make some display pieces, including an electric guitar, as a way to show off the capabilities of the space and the machines inside. They also intend to develop and teach a new series of workshops surrounding some of the technologies and machines available in the studio as well as add a program to the University Libraries’ Twitch channel where viewers can interact with library staff as they create things live in the studio. 

“I’m excited to see what students produce by having access to the Prototyping Studio,” said Tomlin. “I’m also excited about the energy it brings to Newman Library.”

By Elise Monsour Puckett