Thompson FabLab helps Northerners explore creative potential

Members of the facility launched by North Forge North and University College of the North can try out a wide range of high-tech tools and explore new skills without having to leave their community.

FabLab has tools to explore crafts and trades from carpentry to sewing to digital design and podcasting

A smiling man stands to the left of a smiling woman.
Don "Shorty" Glenn and Andria Stephens say they've seen people unlock creative potential they didn't know they had, leading to marketable skills and greater self-confidence. (Emily Brass/CBC)

A new facility in Thompson is offering Northerners a space to try out high-tech equipment they might not otherwise have access to in hopes that experimentation will lead to new interests and hobbies, perhaps even a new career.

Housed in a warehouse in the south side of the city, the North Forge North's FabLab has tools to explore a wide range of crafts and trades, from carpentry to sewing to digital design and podcasting. 

The lessons are informal and free. Locals are encouraged to share their expertise with others even as they pick up new skills themselves.

"We had a retired machinist in here the other day, and he was talking about learning how to 3D print," said Don "Shorty" Glenn, operations manager at the FabLab. 

Glenn had to pivot from his mechanic job when he experienced health issues. Tinkering with scrap metal and wood led him to a new career as an artisan. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"Meanwhile, we've got 3D printing people that want to learn how to machine metal and weld. It's a really great environment. I'd like to think of it as building a community."

The FabLab has already helped one of its members turn his hobby into a side gig.

Franklin Cook is using the shop's 3D printers to make miniature versions of Thompson's iconic wolf statues, which are now selling at tourist gift shops.

"I'm sure there are dozens of people in the North who have an idea or two for something they'd like to build and sell," Cook said.

Franklin Cook says the North Forge Fab Lab helped him turn his 3D printing hobby into a side gig, producing figurines now being sold in a local gift shop. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"But if you don't have $400 or more up front to get a 3D printer, then you can come to a place like this where they have all of the tools necessary to make that dream into something that's real."

The FabLab also welcomes people who don't have a clear goal in mind to drop in and explore their interests and creativity.

Operations assistant Andria Stephens says that can open the door to self-discovery.

"I see people in the community who don't see themselves as artists, who just see themselves as whatever it is that they do," said Stephens, who's also a singer, an arts promoter and Glenn's wife.

Fab Lab members such as Holly Martin explore new skills including woodworking and painting with help from local experts. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"I see people finding out there's something in them they didn't realize they had, and that builds a sense of self-confidence."

Glenn hopes that new-found self-confidence helps people build their resumés and their well-being.

"We have a lot of people who suffer from depression and things like that in the winter time," he said. "One of the best natural cures for that is creative thinking and keeping yourself busy."

It's something Glenn knows about firsthand. A few years ago, he had to give up his mechanic job of 16 years because of an issue with his health.

"I was sitting on my couch looking at my kids and I couldn't provide for them," Glenn said, wiping away tears. 

He started tinkering with scrap wood and metal, and soon blossomed into a custom-work sculptor.

Glenn says he learned how to build custom work like this basement bar by experimenting with crafts including metal and woodwork. (Don Glenn)

"If I could teach people how to work with their hands — you know, teach them a skill or two — then when life throws up barriers, it could give them that opportunity to pivot," he said.

The FabLab was launched with help from University College of the North and a federal grant. Just months after opening its doors, the facility has attracted so many members it's already looking at expanding. 

"It's hard to keep up at times," Glenn said, grinning with pride. "The support has been overwhelming." 

Among the champions of the FabLab is Dennis Green, business development officer for Community Futures North Central Development. He hopes the FabLab inspires more entrepreneurs, and encourages locals to stick around.

Dennis Green with Community Futures North Central Development says the Fab Lab offers young people in the north a chance to explore career possibilities without having to move south to study. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"We've got a lot of young people in the North who may want to learn a skill that they never had the opportunity to do before. They may have had to go to Red River College or some place in Winnipeg," Green said.

"Now it's right in front of them, so the economics of that potential learning curve is not as steep as it may have otherwise been."

Green's organization also helps budding business owners with small startup loans and tips on things such as applying for licences. 

"If we can find a way to keep a young man or woman in Thompson doing what they like to do, then we are by far ahead of the game," he said.

Glenn agrees, adding that skills learned at the FabLab can also open up a range of job opportunities. 

"They could go to an employer and they could say, 'maybe I don't know how to operate the piece of equipment that you have, but I'm confident – now that I've learned these pieces at North Forge [North] — that I could learn. I believe in myself enough to take that next step.'"

He's looking for businesses and government partners to help with funding to keep membership costs free or low.

"Not only does it enrich the person's life individually, but it raises the quality of employees in the community, as well," he said.

New facility in Thompson helps turn ideas into reality

4 months ago
Duration 2:53
A new facility in Thompson is helping people turn their ideas into a reality. The North Forge North - Fab Lab, gives members space to experiment with tools they might not have had access to before.


Emily Brass is a journalist at CBC Manitoba and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, U.K.