Fab Labs : How to Make (almost) Anything

  • John Koppe
  • Assistant Project Manager
  • Rafn Company

I have been interested in FabLabs for a number of years and am writing to share what they are, my perception of their potential, and why I support and help fund them. Fab Labs, short for fabrication laboratory, offer shared access to digital fabrication tools and prototyping machines, including 3D printers, laser cutters, plasma cutters, milling machines, and tons of other digitally driven technologies. Fab Labs are the ultimate playground for anyone interested in tech, innovation, and bringing an idea to life.

With industrial-grade fabrication and electronic tools, open source software and programs written by researchers at MIT, and an idea, users gain a deeper knowledge about the process and engineering involved in innovation and invention. This empowering and engaging experience promotes a cycle of imagination and design, and thus creates a platform for entrepreneurship and learning.

What makes Fab Labs unique is the global community of learners, educators, technologists, researchers, makers, and innovators that make up the network. Sharing this common set of tools and processes makes sharing ideas and designs fairly easy. So, if I make something in one Fab Lab, I should be able to send the files to any other Fab Lab in the world and it could be reproduced. Currently, there are about 1,000 Fab Labs spanning 78 countries. I have visited Fab Labs locally and in Costa Rica, Spain, and Portugal.

One of the key players in developing Fab Labs is Neil Gershenfeld, the founder of the Center for Bits and Atoms and the Fab Foundation at MIT. He compares the potential of Fab Labs to the progression of the 3 digital revolutions: the personal computer, the internet, and personal fabrication.

The first digital revolution, personal computing, began 40 years ago when large main frame computers were owned only by large corporations, but evolved into personal devices that we all carry with us today. The second digital revolution, the internet, has allowed global communication and sharing of information, which has transformed society in many ways—some good, some bad. The third digital revolution is happening now and is readily evolving: personal fabrication.

Personal fabrication allows people to produce many individual needs without mass production. Gershenfeld dreams of the Star Trek replicator, which would allow anyone to create any object on demand. On a larger scale, personal fabrication is putting the means of production in the hands of local communities and serving local needs in the same way that personal computing has evolved. That vision is not here today, but may be more of a reality than we might guess if digital fabrication follows the exponential evolutionary pattern that personal computing did, as illustrated by Moore’s Law, which describes the projection rate of advances in technologies. That said, the current reality of personal fabrication is more about innovation than production, and still has a long way to go.

Gershenfeld, a computer scientist and physicist, always had an interest in personal fabrication. He even constructed a research facility exploring ways to build things on “a scale from atoms to buildings”, with tools scaled from nano, micro, meso, and macro capabilities. This means both exploring methods of assembling things on a microscopic level as well as exploring material science on an atomic level, questioning the nature of materials and the tools used to fabricate them. With a growing understanding of the materials and methods of assembly comes the evolution of the tools themselves. One of Gershenfeld’s visions is for Fab Labs to manufacture tools needed to create new Fab Labs. When visiting the Fab Lab in Vigo, Spain, I discussed the hope to build a lab in a poor community in Colombia. Everyone there was equally excited to create the machines using their own lab.

Gershenfeld also played a key role in the development of Fab Academy, which is a center to train students on how to take a variety of code formats and turn them into physical objects. Students view and participate in global lectures and lab days during the week where they have access to digital fabrication equipment and personal help with projects. Fab Academy faculty, who are leaders in their respective fields, provide global video lectures, supervise academic content, and guide research.

Fab Labs fall into 3 groups with respect to who they serve and how they are funded.

Educational: Many are connected to or funded by universities. This connection is the most straight-forward funding mechanism for shops that easily cost $200,000 to start. The University of Washington has a registered Fab Lab that serves students at UW, but not the public. The architecture program at UW is also increasingly developing digital fabrication capabilities in their shop, although it is not a Fab Lab per se.

Private: This model is less common, not only because of thin profit margins, but because the objective of Fab Labs is innovation, rapid prototyping, and incubation. Generally, but not always, profit generation from private endeavors is limited. A membership generally buys limited machine time; however, most of the work is done on a computer anyway. The (non-certified) Fab Lab in Tacoma is privately funded and operates on a membership basis. It also provides some manufacturing services. One of its clients is the University of Washington Tacoma.

Public: To me, one interesting aspect of Fab Labs is their ability to impact communities. In San Juan, Costa Rica, I contacted both a Fab Lab connected to the University of Costa Rica, and a Fab Lab built in a poor, and somewhat dangerous, neighborhood. The goal of the latter, called Fab Lab de Luz, is to have a positive impact on their community, which is threatened by the drug trade, by teaching skills and acting as an incubator for a positive, collaborative environment.

This model has proven successful in other areas of the world as well. The Ireland Fab Foundation, for example, was started by Patrick Colgan with the assistance of the Irish government and has helped reconstruct communities in places like Belfast, torn by years of conflict. The success of this program has prompted the Colombian government to hire Colgan to work with communities impacted by violence and drug trade. Support in these cases is both from public grants and nonprofit support.

Most Fab Labs use a combination of monetary support, utilizing institutional, public, nonprofit, and private funding. Because of the interconnectedness of the Fab Foundation, these various models can support each other. I funded a trip (with part of my Rafn bonus) to send the robotics program from a school in Pradera, Colombia, to the Fab Lab in Cali. Although the Cali Lab is funded through a private, non-profit university, they have an outreach mission and hope to start Fab Labs in underserved communities like Pradera. Similarly, the Vigo, Spain Lab offered to fabricate tools that would be otherwise unaffordable. The Fab Lab in Vigo, Spain has private memberships, connections to educational institutions, as well as community services through the public library system. The vision that Fab Labs will become a standard part of communities, as libraries did through the support of Carnegie, is one portrayed by Joel Gershenfeld in the book Designing Reality, co-authored with his brothers, Neil and Alan Gershenfeld. It’s a good read that addresses not only the technical vision from the scientist-perspective of Neil, but the social implications as analyzed by Joel, a Social Policy and Management professor.

For more information on Fab Labs, visit www.fabfoundation.org.

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