“Fail early, fail often.”
Many of us shy away from the idea of failure, or the possibility of making a mistake, but it’s a big component of innovation, according to Chris Clark, Program Manager of the Electronics Prototyping Lab and graduate of PSU’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science. “It’s really important that students learn how to be okay with failure, how to learn from failure, and how to progress and move forward from failure,” Clark said. “These are really important qualities to have not only in engineering, but in life.”
The Electronics Prototyping Lab, or EPL, is a facility on PSU’s campus that “provides access to tools, technologies and software with the goal of producing high-quality engineers,” said Clark. “Experiences in the EPL help students graduate with the ability to wear multiple hats, which is a valuable job skill.”
While the EPL includes equipment one would expect of a conventional makerspace (3-D printers, laser cutters, etc.), its focus on prototyping electronics brings with it a catalog of specialized equipment. The EPL’s LPKF ProtoLaser U4 is a laser circuit board router, which enables users to make their own circuit boards in house and was funded in part by the University Venture Development Fund, or UVDF, which supports the commercialization of university discoveries and entrepreneurial education and is administered by PSU’s office of Innovation & Intellectual Property. Other equipment includes a suite of tools for creating printed circuit boards and other electronic components. Among those tools are circuit board routers, a pick and place machine with robotics for handling and manipulating circuit board components, and a reflow oven. The lab also offers hand and manufacturing tools such as a waterjet cutter, mill, and lathe. Soldering tools are also available for corrective work. Students can use the machines after training. Cost is on a per-job basis and is affordable for students. The laser cutter, for example, costs $5 per job to use.
The suite of equipment available for use at the EPL has grown over time. Since Clark became EPL’s program manager in 2016, the lab increased its physical footprint, allowing for increased student participation. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, the lab’s 42 student managers were on track to helping 4,200 students turn their ideas into prototypes. In addition to supporting students, Clark works to bridge the gap between the EPL and industry by creating the Industry Engagement Program.
The Industry Engagement Program allows industry members to “buy-in” to the EPL to gain access to the lab’s equipment to build prototypes or products, potentially saving them the significant cost of outsourcing work and reducing the time it takes to move a product to market. The program also introduced mentorship opportunities for students, providing a valuable supplement to their educational experience. Many PSU professors also work with the EPL in their research.
The EPL is also currently working on its Core Lab authorization, which is a nationwide system of labs available for use at a certain dollar amount per hour. The NSF and other funding agencies are familiar with the Core Lab system, and recognize labs with such designations as resources for use in grant-funded projects.
Unlike many labs of its kind, the EPL is open to students of all disciplines. The open-door policy is an integral part of EPL’s mission to foster an inclusive space where anyone with an idea can come work. The lab’s culture also emphasizes collaboration and collective troubleshooting is common among EPL users and student lab managers. As Clark noted, “brainstorming isn't so much knowledge about a subject, it's about bouncing ideas back and forth and finding creative solutions in dialogues with individuals with different perspectives and backgrounds.” Clark estimates that approximately 50-60% of the students who use the EPL are from the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, with the remaining students coming from other colleges and schools within PSU.
Clark’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to “come to the lab, build something, play around with your technology and talk to people. In the EPL, we focus on how to transform ideas into products. The EPL is not only an educational opportunity; it’s part of a mission of community growth and community development between students and industry members.”