Fab Lab: How to Make Almost Anything With Technology

Can technology solve the world’s problems by unleashing the creativity in all of us? Here’s how the digital fabrication revolution is taking off in Australia.

The Fab Lab WA in Fremantle, Western Australia had a problem. It needed a large-format computer numerical control (CNC) machine, but the cost of one from popular brands such as ShopBot put it out of reach. In the end, the solution they were looking for had actually been there all along. They were in a Fab Lab, so why not just build their own?

“(Building our own CNC machine) embodied the whole Fab Lab philosophy,” said lab manager, Daniel Harmsworth. “The ShopBot is an excellent machine, but over in WA shipping costs can be prohibitive, so we decided to get some final-year engineering students to build a CNC machine. It’s now in operation and it works well; it will even machine steel.”

The large-format CNC machine is sure to prove its worth as the team gets deeper into their next major project – building an electric car with a full-size chassis from the ground up. It’s still in the design stage, but Harmsworth is already looking forward to seeing what his students come up with.

It’s exactly this spirit – a group of students designing and building a car driven mainly by their own passion and interests – that is behind a Fab Lab. It’s a philosophy of grassroots empowerment, of solving the world’s problems by unlocking the creativity in all of us, not just professional designers, engineers, etc.

Where It All Begins

The Fab Lab movement can be traced back to 2001 when physicist and computer scientist Neil Gershenfeld taught a class called ‘How to Make (Almost) Anything’, designed to familiarize students in a multitude of disciplines with the industrial-size laser and pressurized water cutters that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was using. The class was quickly over-enrolled.

This experience later became the spark of inspiration for Gershenfeld to start a network of digital fabrication laboratories called Fab Labs. The first one was started in 2003 in inner-city Boston, Massachusetts and the network has since spread to multiple locations globally – from Afghanistan to China, India and more.

While the first Fab Lab emerged from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, in 2009 the Fab Foundation was founded to promote the Fab Lab movement and provide access to the tools and knowledge needed to enable anyone to invent almost anything. Since its inception, the movement has broadly explored how the content of information relates to its physical representation.

A basic project – programming a microcontroller to flash LEDs in sequence
A basic project – programming a microcontroller to flash LEDs in sequence

Fab Lab ventures include projects like making fluorescent pink key chains at Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana. Gershenfeld believes that there will be a time when many will be able to have a ‘fabrication center’ in our homes – allowing people to download a description of any appliance onto their own computers, feed the designs and raw materials into a personal fabricator and then 3D print these items with the push of a button.

Fab Lab Down Under

In Western Australia, the idea for the Fab Lab began in late 2011 after Harmsworth attended a Hackerspace meetup in Germany where it seemed most of the people there were talking about Fab Labs. On returning to Australia, he got the Challenger Institute of Technology’s (now the South Metropolitan TAFE) Beaconsfield campus interested in housing the lab and eventually got the program rolling in 2012.

The lab has the standardized fit-out, while computer hardware is predominantly Intel-based. Harmsworth is also interested in using the new Intel Galileo microcontroller board for some of the lab’s projects.

From Imagination to Reality

Harmsworth pointed out that engagement for them is twofold. “The key engagement is with fresh graduates from high school who start off learning computer-aided design,” he said. “They’re so into what they’re working on because of the whole idea that a thought in your head can become something you can hold in your hand in just a few hours. It’s incredibly powerful.”

Apart from the students, there are also entrepreneurs with innovative ideas helping them produce prototypes. “There are some promising startups that used the Fab Lab to produce prototypes and we’re continuing to work with them as they try to commercialize their ideas,” said Harmsworth.

The success of the Fab Lab program has also inspired other universities across the US to take the concept and develop their own, which has been adopted by at least one school in Australia.

Lauriston Girls’ School at Armadale, Victoria, is the first school in Australia to run a FabLab@School, an initiative developed by Stanford University Graduate School of Education associate professor, Paulo Blikstein. The lab is equipped in a similar fashion to other Fab Labs around the world.

Three Lauriston girls proudly display a finished project.
Three Lauriston girls proudly display a finished project.

Lauriston’s principal, Susan Just, has taken a very holistic approach, integrating the Fab Lab into the school from kindergarten to year 12. “Our prep students have designed pyramids on iPads and then watched as the laser cutter is used to produce (the designs), while our students in the primary years use the Fab Lab for their inquiry units, such as climate change and migration.”

Advocating for more digital fabrication in schools, Just said: “If the world requires more entrepreneurs, our students need to first know how to crystallize an idea, to plan and to design products that others can use. A Fab Lab goes a long way in helping students to understand these fundamental principles.”

Top image: Students of all ages work together at Lauriston Girls’ School, Australia’s only FabLab@School.

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