They are called FabLabs (Fabrication Laboratories) and are places where you can build (almost) anything. They are small-scale laboratories that offer all the tools needed to carry out digital fabrication projects: in other words, all those activities that involve transforming data into real objects and vice versa.
From a CAD drawing it is possible to fabricate an object, while for the reverse procedure, you need a 3D scanner that converts three-dimensional forms into data that can be edited and exported from one computer to another, also over the Internet. There are various machines available at a FabLab including: 3D printers, CNC milling machines, laser cutters, raw materials of all kinds, circuit boards and microprocessors (such as Arduino).
It all started in the United States. Digital Fabrication is the central focus of the work done at the Center for Bits and Atoms, a facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founded in 2001. Originally it was a course for students entitled “How to Make
(Almost) Anything”, organized by Neil Gershenfeld, an MIT professor interested in the interdisciplinary aspects of computer sciences and physics.
After the success of the first year, the CBA decided to expand the project, establishing a workshop with the support of the National Science Foundation. Following an investment of 50 thousand dollars worth of equipment and 20 thousand dollars worth of materials, the first FabLab in history was created at the SouthEndTechnologyCenter in Boston.
In 2004 came the second FabLab, this time in Sekondi-Takoradi, in Ghana. Within a few years the phenomenon spread like wildfire throughout the world. Today there are a good 261 FabLabs which, at least partially, follow the CBA guidelines. There are about one hundred centres which have been in operation for years, while other projects are still in the development phase.
Despite the fact that they are high-tech laboratories, the FabLabs are based on people instead of machines. Sharing ideas, projects and know-how is the focal point of the digital manufacturing centres. The goal is to make each person aware of being a maker/fabber, a creative individual who can transform any idea into a concrete product or object.
To help spread the maker/fabber culture, the FabLabs devote their space and equipment to organising courses, mentoring sessions and support services aimed at curious people, inventors, small businesses and freelancers. In addition, some FabLabs actively participate in the FabAcademy, a long distance course held by Gershenfeld, lasting five months. In addition to lectures, the FabLabs offer their spaces to students and let them make concrete objects.
For this reason, the constitution of each FabLab is governed by four key features:
- Public access: democratise public access to digital fabrication technologies. A FabLab must therefore ensure that there are ongoing open days in which everyone can use them free of charge.
- Signing of the FabLab Charter: every FabLab must adhere to and support the points listed in the original CBA manifesto (http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/charter/). The copy of the Charter shall be posted on the website and inside the FabLab itself.
- Shared Tools: the FabLabs enjoy common sets of tools and processes with the aim of sharing practices of use. The choice lies mainly with open source software and hardware.
- Collaboration without borders: the FabLabs are part of a global network and cannot live in isolation. The global sharing of knowledge, design, processes, ideas and prototypes is the key element that unites all the individuals involved.
The mission of the FabLabs is to provide citizens and small businesses with the tools and skills to move into the world of digital fabrication. In addition, the democratisation of access to technology, the spread of free software/hardware could help new businesses and creative projects to burgeon.
Some countries, including the United States, are considering new investment programmes to encourage the creation of new FabLabs on their territory. Specifically, the Obama administration, in 2012, proposed to invest 1 billion dollars to innovate the manufacturing system nationwide. Some of the more outstanding proposals put forward include the development of 3D printing and digital design.
A great deal of attention is also given to the educational sector, for which the United States has launched a program called MENTOR Makerspace. The first experimental phase involves the installation of digital fabrication laboratories in 10 California high schools, but the ultimate goal is to involve over 1000 institutions.
Finally, the U.S. Congress was taking into consideration the National Fab Lab Network Act, a bill that lays the foundation for creating a network of national FabLabs. The objective is to create at least one technological laboratory for every 700 thousand inhabitants.
Neil Gershenfeld: American physicist and computer scientist, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. He is one of the creators of the first FabLab, the laboratory of digital manufacturing which today has a network with more than 100 affiliates. He is the director of the Fab Academy, and in February 2006, he gave a TED conference on the phenomenon of the FabLabs. Worth mentioning is one of his most important publications, “Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop”. Scientific American included him in its ranking of the top 50 research leaders in 2004.
“Digital fabrication consists of much more than 3D printing. It is
an evolving suite of capabilities to turn data into things and things
into data. Many years of research remain to complete this vision, but
the revolution is already well under way. The collective challenge is
to answer the central question it poses: How will we live, learn, work,
and play when anyone can make anything, anywhere?”
Tomas Diez (@tomasdiez): tutor and Resident Coordinator of the Fab Academy Diploma at the FabLab Barcelona. He deals with tools for digital fabrication and studies new models of communication between humans and machines. He has participated in Latin American and European projects on the issue of rehabilitation of marginal neighbourhoods in Caracas as well as installations for the XI Biennale of Architecture in Venice (Hyper-Habitat), the design of the Fab Lab House/Solar Decathlon Europe 2010 and FabLab Lima. His academic curriculum includes a Bachelor’s Degree in Urban Planning and Sociology at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Venezuela, a Masters in Advanced Architecture/IaaC, a Graduate Degree in Social Organization at the University of Havana in Cuba and a Diploma in Digital Fabrication at the Fab Academy. In March 2013, he gave the talk Fab Labs in the City at TEDxZwolle.
Eddie Kirkby: Charity & Operations support manager at the Manufacturing Institute in Manchester. In 2009, he began developing the FabLab in Manchester, the first digital fabrication lab opened in the UK. Today he is the representative for the Fab Academy Diploma at the FabLab Manchester.
Massimo Menichinelli (@openp2pdesign): a designer who deals with spaces and collaborative processes such as FabLab and Open Design projects. Following a degree thesis in Industrial Design at the Milan Polytechnic, written in 2005, he started a blog on the topic of community design and began to follow the evolution of the phenomenon. He also studied at the Elisava School of Design in Barcelona, Spain. He then moved to Finland to complete his PhD programme. He is working on developing tools and design processes through open source communities (openp2pdesign.org) and is a producer at the Aalto FabLab at the AaltoUniversity (Helsinki).
Alex Schaub: manager of FabLab Amsterdam, has worked at the Waag Society since 2005. His background ranges from music to technology. After an apprenticeship in Switzerland, he worked for two years in the design of production machinery for Ronda SA. After leaving the watch making industry to devote himself to music, he studied piano and bass at the Jazz Berufsschule in Lucerne. He moved to the Netherlands where he attended the Royal Conservatory and obtained a Bachelor and a Master of Music in 2001. He attended the course at the FabAcademy and in 2008 he became manager of FabLab Amsterdam. Today he oversees and coordinates the development of new FabLabs around the world.
Assia Hassanein: filmmaker and contributor at the WeDo FabLab, the creative laboratory in the province of Novara inaugurated last April. He studied at the European Institute of Design and the CatholicUniversity of the Sacred Heart.
Enrico Bassi: Designer, maker and coordinator of Fablab Torino. He graduated from the Milan Polytechnic in 2007. He works for Arduino and teaches the Design & Engineering course at the LABA in Brescia.
PaoloCavagnolo: engineer and founder of Techlab in Chieri (TO), the space for creative young people inaugurated on April 20, 2013. The mission of the Techlab is to respond to the crisis and bring the world closer to that of local youth, to promote the recovery and development of the arts and crafts of the local cultural tradition thanks to the use of technology.
FrancescoBombardi: Architect and manager of FabLab Reggio Emilia, the laboratory for makers and fabbers opened on October 27, 2012. He studied at the Milan Polytechnic, the Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura in Barcelona and the DomusAcademy.
AmletoPicerno: architect and professor at the Med FabLab, he graduated from La Sapienza University in Rome. He founded the Aramplus studio and digital. He holds two patents for “Communicative architectural facades”. He has exhibited at the Biennale of Architecture in Seville 2008 with the work Digital Water Pavilion on behalf of the CarloRattiAssociati Studio.