Where ideas are turned into reality

Fab Labs restore faith in the creativity of people. As an organisation that can encourage, inspire and develop both people and their ideas, Fab Labs play an interesting catalytic role. But to what extent do they contribute to the engineering sector in the UK?

A Fab Lab – a Fabrication Laboratory – is a fully-kitted workshop that gives users the power to turn ideas and concepts into reality. The most important aspect is that 'the user' is not necessarily an established engineer, or serial inventor, or employee of a technology company. 'The user' can be anyone. Part of the Fab Lab constitution is that the Labs are open to all for at least one day a week. The inner inventor in all of us therefore has a conduit through which to flow.

And all of us has an inner inventor, according to Keith Ashton, author of 'How to fly a horse' and the man who named 'The Internet of Things': "The creativity myth is a mistake born of a need to explain extraordinary outcomes with extraordinary acts and extraordinary characters, a misunderstanding of the truth that creation comes from ordinary people and ordinary work."

So even though Eureka readers live off their abilities in engineering design, there is still a difference between designing a routine part for someone else's project and inventing (and physically making) a product of your own. Ashton continued: "All that is necessary is to begin. Our first creative step is unlikely to be good. Imagination needs iteration."

And apart from inspiring existing engineers, could Fab Labs also be encouraging a new group of people into the engineering profession? It is a tantalising prospect and, given that the new Fab Lab London has had over 9000 people through its doors in less than a year, it is clearly more than just wishful thinking.

Born out of the Centre for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, the Fab Labs programme kicked off in 2001. By January 2015 there were 432 Fab Labs globally - 88 in North America and 240 in Europe. Of these 19 are in the UK which is relatively low compared to our major European counterparts, but a British collective, Fab Lab UK, hopes to grow the number of Fab Labs in the Britain to 50 by 2018.

Every Fab Lab, although part of the overall network, is a standalone unit with its own objectives to offer a unique set of facilities and skill sets. This makes the way each one is used and its target audience unique. In fact, there does seem to be trends appearing depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on.

Shelly Lassiter is President of the Fab Foundation – the umbrella organisation that facilitates and supports the growth of the international Fab Lab network. She has a global perspective and said: "For all our plans for people to have access to the tools and the knowledge for invention, what we have found is that the killer applications for this is in education, specifically science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is an amazing catalytic environment for learning."

Lassiter gives the example of a STEM high school in East Cleveland in the US that is '90% lunch subsidised' and has a Fab Lab as part of its armoury. It has achieved a 9% graduation rate, which is far higher than would be expected in that community, and of those about three quarters have gone on to higher education.

"These are nice numbers," said Lassiter. "Now we have to tease out how Fab Lab is contributing to that specifically. It is very exciting. We have seen that the kids are very engaged, but now we have to quantify that."

And quantifying it is not easy given the disparate nature of the Labs geographically and in their objectives. An example of this difference is in the new Fab Lab London, which started in September last year. And it is not only the miles that separate it from East Cleveland.

Fab placement

Most Fab Labs fall into two categories. One is those that are based in universities, where they have taken existing labs and added the necessary facilities to make it into a 'digital fabrication lab', and provide open access at least one day a week. The other broad category has governmental (either UK or European) backing.

And then there is what founder Tony Fish described as: "The very, very rare ones like London, where it's completely privately backed. There is no government money, we're doing it off our own bat."

It still provides free and open access to anyone on a Friday, and has the regulation Fab Lab kit list that includes a laser cutter, 3D printer and CNC machine. The tool box includes most things that an engineers (or tradesperson) could think of.

It attracts people from ages eight to 80 investigating one–off personal projects, community and educational groups, training scenarios and companies developing their product portfolios.

Fish commented: "People immediately jump into an ideology about revenues and justifications and business plans, because that's an environment that lots of people are brought up in. We haven't got a business plan as such. The strategy is much, much simpler. Go discover amazing start-ups, help them grow and then fund them. But I'm an engineer more than a venture capitalist, we're much more focused on engineering and design than we are on providing funds."

The design focus is provided by co-founder Ande Gregson, a creative technologist, but Fab Lab does not have full time staff. "It is a community-based project. As things earn income, we distribute the income to the people who are working on that particular project, and therefore it's kind of like a democratised co-op. As long as it washes its face and manages to pay everybody, we really happy."

The pool of people, all with different skills sets, now numbers about 50 and all use the philosophy: Learn how to do something, make it and then share it.

"Learn, make, share," says Fish. "If you go round that cycle lots of times you end up with lots of different skills and can make lots of different things."

Some of the people in this pool will come from engineering or technology companies who will release staff for an occasional volunteering day or related CSR type function. But there are a number of companies who use the services as part of their product development strategy.

"The minority of companies who come in here know what they want to do, why they want to do it and have actually got all the skills to do it," claimed Fish. "The vast majority need us to help them through from ideation, all the way through to rapid prototyping. One of the things that they recognise, which is massively beneficial is we do daily iterations as opposed to sending something off to China, wait for six weeks, something comes back, not right, every three months you're basically one iteration forward. We're doing daily iterations."

Moreover, designers who are slaves to their workstations may benefit from having hands-on experience during prototyping. "Therein lies a fascinating dilemma," said Fish. "Lots of people who do drawings or models have never actually seen what a product looks like when it's made. They do make a huge number of assumptions, and when they actually see it and what the problems are, they can iterate. Too often the two have been disconnected. Some designs can't actually be manufactured because the designer has never seen the process."

Equally, designers typically want their products to look aesthetically perfect, whereas engineers want their prototypes to be functional, particularly when this includes electronics. It can mean that further versions have implications for the layout of the board or of the product around it.

Electronics for mechanical engineers

Using the Fab Labs daily iterative process could resolve problems early and not, for example, result in having to re-layout the PCB, which is a far more time-consuming process.

There is electronics expertise within the skills pool, so electronics development can be based around any number of platforms or development environments including Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

Mechanical design can be done on SolidWorks as the company supplies a free copy to all Fab Labs globally. However, those who prefer tinkering in Tinkercad, Rhino, SketchUp and other 3D tools have the facility to do so.

Beyond SolidWorks other companies including Ultimaker, Trotec printer, MakerBot, Roland, RS Components, Intel and Cisco; all supporters in a variety of different ways.

For engineers?

The sort of person Fan Labs attracts varies considerably. Some may be working for a company who have to solve a problem but don't have access to the right tools. Some may not want their company to know they are working there, and some small businesses literally outsource their entire product design process up to prototype.

Fish said: "So you gain these vast arrays of crossovers. We tend to focus on what the individuals are and the skill demands, rather than saying 'we've got this number of companies working with us'.

"The thing washes its face completely. Partly because we have corporates who want to do ideation days, we've got companies who want to pay us to build stuff, we've got an event space and we've got members who come in to use the machines. Every single week is different and every month has been different."

And perhaps what makes Fab Lab London's clientele slightly different from those elsewhere in the country, is that it has a very particular purpose - to discover really early high-growth potential, product-based companies, and then back them.

"It might take us a year to find the right one," admitted Fish. "It could take us five years to find the right five. I might expect to see one a year.

"Success will be looking back in 10 years time, when those companies have grown and been successful and we can say, 'yes, we were there helping seed it and fund it'."

Much to Fish's surprised there are already two companies, neither which can't be disclosed yet, which fit the bill. For one, Fab Lab London went through the whole prototyping process, and for the other it helped solve a problem, concerning a difficult part, on an existing prototype.

"It is stunning what they have built," claimed Fish. "I could see 100 million people a year using their product."

Fab Labs around the UK:

BEC Fab Lab, Cumbria, www.becfablab.org
Fab Lab Airedale, Keighley, www.fablabairedale.org
Fab Lab Cardiff, fablabcardiff.com
Fab Lab Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, www.fab-lab-ellesmereport.org
Fab Lab Liverpool, www.fablabs.io/fablabliverpool
Fab Lab London, www.fablablondon.org
Fab Lab Manchester, www.fablabmanchester.org
Fab Lab Plymouth, www.plymouthart.ac.uk
FabLab Belfast, www.fablabni.com
FabLab Essex, www.mic2c.com/fablabessex
FabLab Nerve Centre, Derry, www.nervecentre.org/projects/fab-lab#.UMJ0R7YWWbI
FabLab North Greenwich, London, www.fablabs.io/fablabnorthgreenwich
FabLabDevon (Exeter), Exeter, Devon, www.fablabdevon.com
MAKE Aberdeen, www.make-aberdeen.com
MAKLAB, Glasgow, www.maklab.co.uk
Makernow, Cornwall, www.makernow.org
Spitfire Fab Lab (Eastleigh, UK), www.fablabsuk.co.uk/spitfirefablab/
fablab@strathclyde, Glasgow, www.fablabs.io/fablabstrathclyde
ffablab Pontio, Bangor, www.pontio.co.uk