The Air Force Aims to Inspire Workforce, Boost Innovation via the Maker Movement

03.08.17 01:03 AM By Jennie Hempstead

Makerspaces are producing more than prototypes for one Department of Defense laboratory and could build the blueprint for changing workforce culture.

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The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) was looking for creative ways to inspire its employees. Facing an unprecedented 30% attrition rate of its workforce due to retiring employees and competition from industry, AFRL was trying to stop the bleeding. This workforce shortage was compromising the technological discoveries that protect and defend our nation. AFRL needed a fast and innovative solution to combat this challenge.

Understanding the Culture

Wright Brothers Institute, an innovation institute in partnership with AFRL was completing an 18 month Workforce Development Initiative. Frustration with bureaucracy and the allure of collaborative and inspired work environments was too attractive to the younger workforce to pass up. What could turn the tide? A conversation with an inspired AFRL employee sparked an idea: a space that emulated the collaborative and creative culture that many younger members of the workforce were missing, with hands-on learning.

Inspired by the Maker Movement

That inspired employee was Dr. Emily Fehrman Cory, then a Program Manager for the Air Force ManTech Program. Following the 2014 National MakerFaire, Dr. Fehrman Cory began looking for ways to incorporate the Maker Movement into the daily lives of the scientists and engineers at AFRL. Outside of her day job, she was active in Dayton’s regional Maker Movement and serves on the board of the Dayton Mini MakerFaire. Then, in early 2016, a conversation with Wright Brothers Institute employees Bob Lee and Cheryl Reed sparked the idea of a makerspace dedicated to AFRL employees. “Wright Brothers Institute was invaluable in helping find the space in their facility, investigating funding options and working on a management structure,” said Dr. Fehrman Cory.

A fast, innovative solution

Over a six month process, Dr. Fehrman Cory and Wright Brothers Institute pulled together a plan and pitched it to AFRL leadership. “I wanted to attract the workforce within AFRL to provide them with a unique opportunity to broaden technical skills, while also fostering collaboration that would be so valuable inside the lab,” said Dr. Fehrman Cory. Leadership, specifically former Executive Director Doug Ebersole and Small Business Director Bill Harrison, quickly understood the connection and were eager to get started.

Since the grand opening in October of 2016, the innovative influence has rippled through AFRL and the Dayton region. All of the remotely located AFRL laboratories have asked for equipment lists and how-to guides in order to build their own makerspaces. In June, during Dayton Start-Up week, several Dayton-area attendees asked how they could use the AFRL Maker Hub and partner with AFRL on projects. New partnerships that could foster untold creativity. And current users are making a considerable return on investment.

  • Prototypes – Isaac Weintraub helped develop light-weight, flexible body armor prototypes, saving money on costly design errors by using off-the-shelf technology to bring concepts to life. “Seeing your ideas come to life is rare in early stage R&D environments, so it’s very satisfying to see it in action,” said Weintraub.

  • Collaboration - Users are working with other AFRL employees, learning what they do and how they can partner in a more organic way. “Forced collaboration rarely works, but building relationships in the Maker Hub means users self-select collaborative opportunities,” said Lt. Lance Wilhelm.

  • Community - Isaac helped develop user guides for equipment and materials creating a makerspace that’s more inclusive to non-technical AFRL employees. These manuals will make it easier to offer memberships to non-DoD personnel, furthering the collaborative opportunities.

With plans to add a second AFRL Maker Hub at the Wright Brothers Institute – 2nd Street location in downtown Dayton, Dr. Fehrman Cory hopes to breakdown more stovepipes and increase the user community. “Being close to startups and other makers in the downtown area will really open up the aperture for the community to build something great with AFRL employees.” Already active in planning the 2017 Dayton Mini-Maker Faire, she hopes to build a following that results in a nationally attended event, right here in Dayton, Ohio.

What the AFRL Maker Hub proves is that makerspaces are becoming the place to ignite the inner maker in all employees, steadily changing workforce culture while bringing back the technological minds that will help defend a nation.

The AFRL Maker Hub will be hosting a Makerspace Town Hall in Dayton, Ohio in late September/early October of 2017. This event will discuss topics including how the Maker Movement can be incorporated into emerging innovation districts and how others leverage opportunities produced in makerspaces. Attendees and speakers will include a mix of stakeholders, makers and professional manufacturers. For more information about upcoming events, please follow Wright Brothers Institute on Twitter @wbiinnovates, contact Jennie Hempstead at jennie.hempstead@wbi-icc.com or visit www.wbi-innovates.com.