UNC Asheville’s new maker space combines efforts of engineering, arts students

It would be easy to consider the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s first-ever team competing at the SAE College Design Series an underdog.

But operating out of the newly opened STEAM Studio, a 12,000 square-foot maker space located in downtown Asheville that opened in January, the playing field has been leveled quite a bit for UNC Asheville’s team.

The state-of-the-art facility has allowed the team to cut down on expenses in building an electric-powered race car and also saved the team some work, according to senior Lindsi Jones.

“The race car pretty much wouldn’t be able to be built if we didn’t have the STEAM Studio,” said Jones, a mechatronics major from Wilmington. “It’s been a significant benefit to have that space and the machinery in there. We’re a first-year team in an international competition, and we don’t have a whole lot of money. We can’t necessarily order the parts, but we’re able to manufacture almost 80 percent of the car in-house.”

Jones noted that the team from Clemson University, which has competed in the competition for many years, will have parts for its car created in a factory in Detroit. Jones said her team doesn’t have that luxury, and is creating the car from scratch – from the computer designs to assembling the frame.

“One of my teammates actually designed a tube-notcher, because the tubing that goes around the framing has to be cut at certain angles which have to be perfect,” she said. “Once the tubes are cut, we weld them on. All of those things are done at the STEAM Studio. Teams like Clemson  come up with a design and then send it out to a factory. They can afford to do that. That’s three steps we were able to do in-house, not just for the benefit of the budget, but for the technical experience we got in the process.”

Because the engineering process for the students is so hands-on, they have to learn to plan the steps thoroughly, then gain valuable practice in constructing the pieces and making sure they work correctly.

Marrying engineering with art

The studio is divided into two large spaces – a woodworking side and a metal-shop side. The design set-up allows art students to work nearby engineering students, with the ultimate goal of letting the two unique disciplines interact.

“Our arts students need to be set up just like the engineering students,” said Brent Skidmore, an associate professor of art at UNC Asheville. “In this workplace, we have a skillset that’s pretty diverse, particularly with what my sculpture students need. Here, they are able to realize things with their hands and with computer control.”

UNC Asheville Maker Space

While Jones is working on her senior project of designing an electrical grid for residential use, not far away in the same building is Jeb Hedgecock, a senior from Walnut Cove who is working on projects as an art major. Hedgecock grew up working in traditional art forms, such as painting and clay, but has been learning to use 21st century technology to create his pieces. The STEAM Studio provides him the tools, such as computer navigation-controlled machines, to use computer programs to control machines to cut materials into certain shapes.

“I’ve been able to get here pretty frequently,” he said. “I’ve been learning about the larger equipment, the scary-looking equipment. I had zero familiarity with these machines before STEAM opened. I had a class with 3-D printing, but even then, I didn’t get to use the printer, I just sent a file in. Once you get the fundamental learning down, you catch on pretty exponentially. UNC Asheville and STEAM has helped me re-evaluate how I can make art.”

Hedgecock thinks the machines in the STEAM Studio will eventually be used not as a replacement for the paintbrush and chisel, but to complement those traditional tools.

“Art is about craftsmanship – manual skill will always be a part of it,” he said. “People like to see art that involves manual skill. But at the same time, art is also a reflection of where we are as a people, and I think technology is too intertwined for us not to take advantage of it. I use the machines to take care of grunt-work tasks that need to be precise, but I don’t need to spend a lot of time doing them, such as cutting a lot of the same shapes. I think it’s pointless not to take advantage of all the things we’ve been given.”

Hedgecock said one of his fellow students is even helping with the seat design of the race car as the UNC Asheville team is recruiting some of the artists for their ideas on how to improve the car both performance-wise and aesthetically. Jones said the artists often come up with ideas that many not occur to the engineering students.

“Even though we take engineering design classes, you are learning really difficult technical theories and sciences,” she said. “You can erect a functional product that does what you need it to do, but it’s just that – it’s functional. But when you work with art students, you can ask their opinion. They just have such a great eye in making the functional into an attractive form. They can really bring some insight, and they can come up with things you don’t think of as an engineer.”

Skidmore said that from a teaching perspective, the art and engineering professors have been on the same page in putting their respective students together to see what they can create.

“Artists can learn from engineers, and engineers can learn from artists,” he said.

Rebecca Bruce, the interim director of UNC Asheville’s engineering department, said both disciplines share a common goal for their students. The collaboration began with engineering students creating a 3-D model for equipment designed to help a disabled person, which would then be cast by art students.

“We did this for three or four semesters, and that was the basis for our collaborations,” she said. “Now that the STEAM Studio is open, we are contemplating additional coursework that would bring these two student groups together, and hopefully, they would see the advantage of working together, and the collaboration would become more organic.”

How it came together

The STEAM Studio includes the River Arts Maker Space, or RAMP, and is also part of the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship, which is still in the planning stages, Skidmore said. The studio was built through grants from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, Duke Energy and North Carolina State University.

UNC Asheville Steam Studio

Some of the space inside the studio can be reconfigured for whatever group is using it at the moment, and there are computer labs for students to design their projects. Eventually, Skidmore said, the public will be allowed to view demonstrations of how the machines make things.

While not strictly a business incubator, Skidmore said the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship is designed to help UNC Asheville students collaborate on new ideas.

“It’s a co-working space for them for when they get their businesses up and running,” he said. “It’s an intersection of the creative sector and entrepreneurship, which reflects what we have going on in the area and the community. It’s a game-changer for the students.”

Bruce added, “These are two groups of makers who complement each other wonderfully – the engineers, by nature, look at the functionality of the piece, and the artists, by nature, look at the presentation of the piece. Putting these two groups together, and getting them to appreciate each other. I think it’s fantastic.”