Some day in the near future, an on-campus innovation center could be as ubiquitous to college life as a library, a student union or a football stadium. A handful of schools are leading the way, including Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. It recently opened the Institute for Collaboration and Innovation, which is more commonly known as the think[box].

The facility provides a space for students, faculty and alumni to tinker and create new products. It’s open 63 hours a week and hosts 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a month.

“Think[box] is a distinct, on-campus environment where hands-on education, design and development, and product commercialization can all take place, and where these activities can interact and cross-fertilize,” says Ian Charnas, a mechanical engineer who serves as manager of the 2-year-old facility.

“More than a meeting place or world-class fabrication laboratory, it’s home to educators, advisors, mentors and facilitators who can assist students and faculty into becoming tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and technology leaders,” notes Charnas.

“Think[box] is a force to change the social culture of northeast Ohio by encouraging cross-department and cross-institution collaborative endeavors that push creativity and innovation to their limits,” adds Charnas. “By providing a place where members of the engineering, design, arts, science and business communities can interact, we hope to overcome the intellectual and physical boundaries that often prevent the spread of ideas and limit cross-discipline innovation.”

Case Western Reserve’s current 4,000-square-foot facility includes a wood shop, a metal shop and 3D printers. “You can do everything from computerized embroidery to creating printed circuit boards,” says Charnas. “We have a wide variety of equipment that’s not specific to any particular engineering discipline.”

Approximately 60 percent of users are engineering students. However, unlike similar facilities at other schools, access to the think[box] is not restricted to electrical engineers or mechanical engineers.

“We have students from arts and sciences, medicine and law using the equipment as well,” notes Charnas. “Our access policy is unique. In addition to all students and faculty, our facility is open to the public.

“The rules are transparent and the doors are physically open here,” adds Charnas. “You can just walk in and say ‘I’d like to use a laser cutter’ or “I’d like to use a drill press.’

“Our goal with open access is to promote cross-disciplinary teams,” says Charnas. “People are working on a huge range of projects at our facility. There’s everything from medical devices to sporting goods.”

This summer, think[box] will be moving into a seven-story, 50,000-square-foot building. “At that time, we’ll be one of the world’s largest university-based invention centers,” claims Charnas. “Our facility will be bigger than well-known centers such as Harvard’s Innovation Lab, MIT’s Fab Lab and Stanford’s Institute of Design.”

Each floor of the new facility will contain 7,000 square feet of space. One floor will be devoted to collaboration. It will house white boards that help users do their thinking and designing.

“People won’t have to do their thinking while sitting at a computer,” notes Charnas. “It’s actually much faster to design through paper-based drawings and crafting supplies. Too many people think they need to use CAD right away without trying to improve their process.”

A separate floor in the building will be devoted to prototyping, featuring a variety of 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools. Another floor will focus on fabrication, housing more traditional machinery such as lathes, mills and welding equipment.

“There will also be a floor for students to assemble and test their projects in a space where they don’t have to look at it every day,” says Charnas. “A lot of students currently make things in their dorm rooms, apartments or the dark corner of a lab some place.”

The top floor will house an incubator where students can turn their ideas into real-world products, with direct access to legal, financial and marketing assistance.