What a Fab Lab really is?

In the last decade, we have witnessed the flourishing of the maker movement.  This blooming has bring forward some terms such as DIY, Maker community, Fab Lab, makerspace or hackerspaces. However, many people still does not have clear which are the differences among the difference terms. Actually, this is not a trivial question. Some of the terms are mixed up and used as synonyms even in the research literature. In this post, I will try to clarify those terms (even when there is no clear consensus on the definition) and from that explain what a Fab Lab really is.  

Makerspaces are generally understood as community run workshops, designed around manufacturing of physical (including hardware) and/or digital items (software), where members share among them tools and knowledge. Makerspaces contain different machines that permits the manufacturing of new objects and spaces enabling collaborative work.

There are two aspects that stands out in any makerspace:

  1. Focus on making/producing/fabricating things vs merely consumption of products/services. They are fueled by a change in mentality: from the “Where can I buy this?” to “How can I fabricate this? (consumer vs prosumer).
  2. The sense of Community is a fundamental aspect on any makerspace. The communities themselves usually run Makerspaces. Community members shares their expertise and organize events to educate others.

Makerspace, as such, did not exist as a term till 2005, when Paul Doughherty published the MAKE magazine. This publication along with the Maker faires are the main hallmarks of what soon started to be called the Maker community. They defined a makerspace as any publicly accessible place to design and create. The popularity of the term increased around 2011 when MAKE magazine registered makerspace.com.

However, the maker movement was not the initiator of makerspaces. Since the mid 70’s there has been a movement of passionate people about computers and technology that meet together at physical spaces known as hackerspaces. Majority of experts consider hackerspaces as predecessors of current makerspaces. Although, in this case, computation (hardware and software) was the common interest of the community, the procedures taken in these spaces(work together in projects, learn from each other, build customized hardware/software systems … ) are inherited to current makerspaces.  One of the first and most well-known hackerspaces is the Homebrew Computer Club in California. It claimed very important personalities that redefined the future of computer such as the cofounder of Apple Steve Wozniak.  Currently there are more than two thousands of hackerspaces all around the world. In Finland the hacklab.fi network serves as a contact point for all hacklabs in Finland. Currently it counts with 14 hackerspaces located all around Finland. Tarlab in Oulu is the northernmost hackerspace in Finland and probably of Europe.

Hackerspace. CC Wikimedia commons. Author: Mitch Altman

Fab Labs are a network of digital fabrication facilities that share common principles with other makerspaces. For instance, Fab Labs are generally run by a community who share their expertise to create new products. While hackerspaces are more oriented to computing, Fab Labs are mainly about fabrication. I like to define Fab Lab in the following way:

                      “A Fab Lab is a technical prototyping platform for innovation, invention, collaboration and learning: a place to play and to create. It is a small-scale workshop offering digital fabrication comprised by off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, wrapped in open source software

 

Fab Lab Oulu. General view. Laser cutter and CNC milling machine on the right. 3D printer in the backside. Working area on the lef.

Electronic workbenches at Fab Lab Oulu.

Fab Lab Oulu. Main entrance.

Fab Lab concept is an original idea of Neil Gershenfeld director of The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. After the success of the course “How to make almost anything”, Gershenfeld realized of the potential of creating a network of small workshops, containing a collection of commercially available fabrication machines run by computers, which enables everyone to make almost anything”.   Gershenfeld envisioned an international network of open workshops where people can collaborate, interact and share tools, materials and software with the shared goal of fabricating from scratch any object designed previously with software. His view was beyond “to make almost anything” but to “make fabrication technologies accessible for almost anybody and hence empower people to start their own technological futures

The big difference of Fab Lab in comparison of other type of makerspaces is its organizations. Fab Lab have a centralized organization, nowadays coordinated by the Fab Foundation. This foundation, formed in 2009, aims to facilitate and support the growth of the international Fab Lab network by “giving access to the tools, knowledge and financial means to educate, innovate and invent [...] using digital fabrication”. The Fab Foundation has set the requirements that a space should have to be considered a Fab Lab and hence to be considered part of the network. Fab Labs must have a minimum set of core equipment and tools. This includes:

  • Basic electronic equipment
  • Laser cutter
  • Vinyl Cutter
  • CNC precision milling machine
  • CNC router
  • 3D printer

Different machines in a Fab Lab. © https://www.fablabs.io/

In addition, a Fab Lab should be opened to the community for little or no cost as the Fab Charter states:”Fab labs are available as a community resource, offering open access for individuals as well as scheduled access for programs”.

The global network is a fundamental part of the Fab Lab definition.The Fab Charter states that a Fab Lab is “a global network of local labs, enabling invention by providing access to tools for digital fabrication”. The standardization of machines and processes makes possible the replication: any work done and documented in one Fab Lab in USA can be replicated, for instance, in a Fab Lab in Rwanda. Such a powerful action it is only possible thanks to centralization and standardization provided by Fab Labs.

Currently the Fab Lab network counts with more than 1100 Fab Labs distributed all around the world.

Fab Lab network around the world.  
 

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Last updated: 3.11.2017

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