One’s own engineer: Engineering in fab lab format
2014-07-10 | Text: Ekaterina Hvorova | Photo ©: depositphotos.com / TomasMikula, zhudifeng; web.mit.edu; hackerspace-adelaide.org.au | 4304

Thirty years ago portable inkjet and laser printers appeared on the market. Their inventors, probably, did not imagine how revolutionary these devices would be - not only with respect to typed text, but to the industry as a whole. Perhaps you think that it is too high a score for simple office devices.

But there are at least three reasons for such high-flown impacts. Firstly, the invention of the printer made several industries completely redundant. The industry of typewriter manufacturing almost ceased to exist. The last large enterprise of this industry was closed in 2012 in England, and the last typewriter from the production line went to the Science Museum. The production of photomaterial (reagents, photographic paper) and related photographic equipment experienced a crisis - photos are now also printed on printers. However the production of photograph quality paper, for example, has grown significantly.

Secondly, only specially trained people acquired typing skills. At that time no one had an idea that everyone should be able to type. But with the invention of the computer and printer, typing skills for each person became as natural as the ability to speak.

Thirdly, and most important is that it’s just the beginning. The evolution of printing technology has led to the appearance of 3-D printers, and they will really turn everything upside down. Many experts are inclined to think that the industry as we know it today is coming to an end. Almost everything - from buttons to rocket engines - will be made by 3-D printing. We won’t need to go to the store to buy a new shirt or a mug – it will be enough to download a file with a 3-D model from the Internet and print it on a desktop 3-D printer. 3-D models will become major items in the near future, and 3-D- modeling skills will be also included in a standard set of skills for each person, because they will provide the opportunity to create unique things that no one else has. Today musical instruments, artificial limbs, clothes, toys, drones and parts for cars are already printed on 3-D- printers... Plastics usually serve as materials for manufacturing, but there are also printers that print with the help of metal – a real gun was printed on one of them not so long ago. They have already developed food printers - with their help NASA prepares food for astronauts. Human organs suitable for transplantation are created on bio-printers. Human cells, mostly stem cells, mixed with gel are used as 3d- ink in them. Building blocks are made with the help of construction 3-D printers that print using special concrete. The projects for giant 3-D printers that will print whole houses and even skyscrapers are already prepared. Finally, perhaps it is 3-D printers that will serve as the beginning for the creation of the first samples of artificial life - British scientists from the University of Bath implemented a feature of 3-D breeding, having created a printer that is capable of reproducing itself.


Of course, some time will pass before these printers appear on our tables, as 3-D printing technology is not yet perfect, and the technique itself is quite expensive. But even in this period of transition access to 3-D printing technology is open – by means of fab labs that are now being made created worldwide. They can also teach you about digital production. We will talk about all this in our material.

Fab lab (fabrication laboratory) – is a small workshop complete with equipment (CNC machines, laser cutters, 3-D printers) and specialized software for digital manufacturing that enables anyone in a single laboratory to quickly create prototypes of various products and devices, to implement interesting inventive ideas and engage in technical creativity. It does not require ‘manual’ intervention in the production process – a computer controls everything. But the main feature of the fab lab is its focus not on the manufacture of something that was ordered, but on the training of the people to operate the equipment and software for the independent production of their own ideas. In addition to a wide range of digital tools, fab labs also focus on creating tools and electrical circuit boards and programming. Besides, the experience and knowledge helps to integrate all the components together. Thus, fab lab is an environment in which ideas are born; a technical solution found and the physical embodiment created. At the same time all development and knowledge are made available to others.

The first such laboratory was established at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - it was conceived as a place where anyone can come and implement any idea, even the most insane one. In 1998 Neil Gershenfeld, the founder of the laboratory, in order to educate students to work on the production equipment existing in the center, launched a training course entitled ‘How to make (almost) everything’. About a hundred students immediately signed up and joined this course, and not only those who were studying engineering. The listeners were attracted by the need to acquire skills in modern production machines for their work, and last of all, the possibility of creating an individual item that cannot be bought in the store. Upon completion of the course the students left rave reviews, which led to the popularity of the course over the next years.

The experience of the first laboratory showed that people without technical education, who only have interest and desire, can easily master the skills of working on specialized equipment to make their fantasies come true. Success of the courses inspired Neil Gershenfeld to create the philosophical basis of fab lab and extension of the fab lab model beyond university level. Soon the first ‘external’ laboratories were opened. Boston teenagers from disadvantaged neighborhoods started to study there - even they were interested in this project.

Currently, more than 250 fab labs are open worldwide (America, Australia, India, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, etc.), all of which are combined into a single network. To be considered as a fab lab, the site must meet several criteria: it must have a certain set of equipment to provide open access for everyone (upon simple requirements), it must accept the terms described by the Fab Lab Association’s website and join the worldwide fab lab network. As the same technique is used for training, it became possible to create a so-called Fab Lab - Academy, to conduct online lectures and video conferences, in which participants from different countries share their experiences, ideas and tips. Every year a large congress of fab lab participants is organized, where you can share knowledge and exchange views on various important issues.

The largest number of fab labs is open on an institutional basis - to educate students as well as for the implementation of major projects, including commercial ones. For example, Barcelona’s fab lab is created at the Institute of Contemporary Architecture of Catalonia and allows the implementation of various projects and services for prototyping and creating models for architects and designers. For example, they have created an energy-efficient home that receives electricity from the solar panels installed on the roof, and now the idea for a whole green city is being worked out. Fab lab in Manchester is more focused on industrial technology and education, providing business services for prototyping commercial products, technical advice and training. This laboratory, according to commercial performance, is one of the most successful in the world. And fab lab in Amsterdam is founded by the Waag Society community center and is focused on the development of new ideas in the field of digital technology, health, culture and education.

Around 80% of existing laboratories are located in Europe and the USA. All of them can be considered unique because they are significantly different from each other as to the value and structure of equipment, the objectives, the target audience, and ongoing projects. In developing countries (Kenya, Ghana, India and Afghanistan) the situation is opposite - the laboratories are similar through all organizations and they all have only standard equipment. Despite this, it is here that a large number of projects implemented in fab labs are in great demand, which in life and in the future they are embodied and replicated. Laboratory creators say that students in developing countries perceived fab lab not only as a way to self-realization, but as a possibility to improve their living conditions with the help of modern technology. In Ghana, one of the first fab lab projects was an electric generator for Tesla and the cooling system for trucks carrying food. In the Indian village of Pabal they established milk quality sensors in the fab lab that allowed for controlling the freshness and microbiological and chemical purity of the milk.


In developing countries, in fab labs they firstly create the things that they urgently need. For example, the students of Technical University in Ghana, which has a fab lab, together with specialists from MIT, made energy system solar panels for one of the villages.

FabFi – an open-source system became one of the most impressive projects implemented in developing countries; it allows for using available materials to create a wireless Internet network of transmitters that broadcast signals over distances up to 10 km. The project was first implemented in Afghanistan, and then these developments were used in other countries. The FabFi- network in Afghanistan has been running for three years with the support of the community, but without any special maintenance. The network in Kenya, built on the basis of this experience, began experimenting with quality management services and providing additional services for a fee.

In the Russian fab lab network one of the first, in 2011, was the ‘children’s’ laboratory, established at Lyceum No.1502 of the Moscow Institute of High-Power Engineering (‘Experimentarium 1502 MIE’), aimed at the education of pupils in the field of design and inventive activities. The possibility to see how an idea almost magically materializes as the desire turns into a thing while being of school age can be a strong argument when choosing a future profession. Work for the future  is one of the main ideas of fab lab philosophy.

As for the ‘adult’ Russian fab labs, they opened Fab lab MISA in Moscow, and in St. Petersburg there is Fab lab Polytech, Hackspace - Petersburg and Fab lab TVN. Fab lab MISA, Fab lab Polytech and Fab Lab@ School Experimentarium 1502 are certified laboratories and are part of a single fab lab network. Fab lab in Petersburg acting in Hackspace format deserves a more detailed description. It is a space for the implementation of projects for young professionals interested in electronics, construction, working on CNC machines, robotics, design and 3-D modeling. Besides Hackspace (Hackerspace) is positioned not just as a place with equipment for realization of projects, but it’s first and foremost a community of people interested in technology, electronics, programming and other technical things. The word ‘hacker’, which gave its name to this fab lab  format, is interpreted as ‘a man who penetrates into the essence of technology’ and is different from the negative image imposed by the movies. Hackspace is a place where people want to innovate and change the world.


HackSpace is another place for lovers of engineering, science and technology, which unites them with the community.

However, with these listed fab labs there is a range of creative centers close to them in functionality and purpose in Moscow. This is the laboratory of robotics and 3-D tech of the ‘Guideline’ vocational guidance center, the laboratory of STCY ‘Tehnorama South- East’ vocational guidance center, as well as the laboratory of 3-D modeling and rapid prototyping, established within the vocational guidance framework in the information- analytical center of the Moscow Department of Education. In the future we plan to create more than 20 such centers in the Moscow region and throughout Russia.

Neil Gershenfeld believes that the creators of Russian fab labs must find their unique way. Fortunately, there are lots of commercial-free niches in Russia that fab labs can fill to achieve financial sustainability of the project. For example, it may be the creation of infrastructure for small and medium-sized businesses for prototyping, or educational training services for the work on digital production equipment. Sherry Lassiter, the Head of the International Fab Lab Association, says that in the 21st century, students need to learn how to solve the problems, not only in a particular subject or field of science, but also in interdisciplinary interactions. A person should not say ‘it’s not my job, I do not know how to do it’ – he or she should have enough knowledge in various disciplines. Fab lab allows them to learn it.

And what’s next? Neil Gershenfeld believes that someday there will be machines that perform all the functions of modern fab labs, but the dimensions of which will allow us to install them on a standard desktop. And if today any tangible product is the result of the processing of natural or synthetic materials, in the future there will be systems that combine materials synthesis and give them the necessary forms and structures. It is no accident that Gershenfeld titled one of the chapters of his book, which is today ‘the Bible’ of the international fab lab network, as follows: ‘From a personal computer - to a personal production’. Given how rapidly the Fab lab network and computer technology are developing now, we shouldn’t have any doubt that Gershenfeld will implement these ideas in practice. And we will hardly have to wait very long.

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