On a recent visit to Manchester to attend the Future Everything summit, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the UK’s first fab lab, housed in a striking, slab-like building in the waterside district of one of Britain’s great industrial cities.
I spoke to Eddie Kirkby (of the Manufacturing Institute) and Haydn Insley (fab lab manager) to find out how the fab lab movement is spreading into the UK.
Manchester’s fab lab is owned and run by the Manufacturing Institute, a charity that supports manufacturing business in the UK. It opened in 2010 after one of the institute’s board members met fab lab pioneer Neil Gershenfeld on a visit to the USA, and brought the idea back with him.
It’s safe to assume that most readers of this blog will be familiar with the idea of a fab lab. For those that aren’t, here’s what MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms FAQ has to say:
Fab labs provide widespread access to modern means for invention. They began as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). CBA assembled millions of dollars in machines for research in digital fabrication, ultimately aiming at developing programmable molecular assemblers that will be able to make almost anything. Fab labs fall between these extremes, comprising roughly fifty thousand dollars in equipment and materials that can be used today to do what will be possible with tomorrow’s personal fabricators.
Fab labs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway. Activities in fab labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research. Projects being developed and produced in fab labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing, and rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines.
There has been a long, slow decline in the manufacturing sector in the UK, felt hardest in the once-dominant industrial cities of the north.
The loss of power and relevance (however temporary that may prove to be) has also resulted in a declining interest in manufacturing amongst young people and entrepreneurs. If, in the last couple of decades, you were deciding what to educate yourself in, or where to start a business, chances are you’d not spend too long looking into the manufacturing industry.
The Manufacturing Institute wants to change that and sees the fab lab movement as a means to that end. With access to tools for rapid prototyping and small-scale fabrication, plus a globally-connected network of customers, suppliers and inventors and expert peers, a new sense of opportunity is emerging:
“We want to create a culture of people who think more about creating and making things, not just going in a shop and buying things,” says Eddie. “So if we create a culture where people think, I’ve got a problem to solve, I can actually solve it myself, rather than just buying something off the shelf, that starts to create a culture of innovation.
“We’re trying to build a ladder that takes people from a very young age, keep them engaged as they go through, and develop them into young entrepreneurs, who can start new businesses.”
Many of the people sensing this opportunity don’t come from the manufacturing industry. They’re makers, or creatives; people scratching their own itch. The fab lab is introducing new people to manufacturing ‘by stealth.’ And the Manufacturing Institute see this kind of engagement as key to changing attitudes, and not just in Manchester:
“We get about 2500 visitors a year,” Eddie says. “That’s 2500 people engaging with manufacturing – having a positive engagement with manufacturing. So we think, if we had 30 fab labs in the UK, that’s 70,000-80,000 people engaging with manufacturing.”
A perfect example of innovation born in fab labs is the Nifty MiniDrive, a simple yet ingenious device that fits into the SD card slot of Apple laptops, but holds a min-SD card inside, invisibly adding up to 64GB of storage to your laptop.
The project was a runaway success on Kickstarter, shooting past its funding target of $11,000 to raise over $380,000. While the project team are now dealing with the challenges Kickstarter success brings, they started design and prototyping in the Manchester Fablab.
“This is what we want to happen in the Fablab. People come in to solve a problem of their own, and then realize it has commercial applications, and they can take it outside the Fablab to a commercial business and create wealth. That’s the real success story that we want to see,” says Eddie.
A lot of thought is given at the fab lab to getting started; removing the obstacles — real or perceived — that stop people from trying things out. One of these is the difficulty of learning how to use the machines. Addressing this fear is at the heart of the fab lab ethos:
“As fablabs have developed, the equipment has evolved to be very robust, and reasonably easy to use. It’s deliberately low-tech; it’s not cutting edge, most of it could be found in universities or schools or colleges. It’s deliberately chosen to be a low barrier to entry.
“Probably the most difficult piece of equipment we’ve got is the large CNC milling machine. We can teach someone to be competent on that in two hours. The other equipment, they can learn themselves in an hour or less,” says Eddie.
Haydn adds: “You can get a laser cutter for £2,000 – £3,000. Ours cost £15,000, but it’s more robust, more friendly, you don’t need a water cooler, and so on. The machines have been chosen because they’re fairly robust, and not much — within reason — is going to go wrong with them. So they’re good machines to learn on.”
In contrast to formal education, learning at the fab lab is broken down into the smallest possible units. You learn what you need to get the next job down: It’s a just-in-time approach, that fits the rapid prototyping ethos:
“We’re trying to break down this idea that you go into one particular subject, and you study that subject — learn everything there is to know about it — and then you come out as a mechanical engineer, or a creative artist, etc. We’re trying to help people learn a bit of everything, and learn it when they need it. So rather than do a four year course on one subject, and then go out to industry and use 10 percent of it, we’ll say, ‘What do you want to make now?’ and we’ll teach you how to make it. ‘What do you want to make next?’ and we’ll teach you that too. That way, people build knowledge slowly, and it stays with them. It’s a much more useful way of doing things,” says Eddie.
A global network
While a pioneer in the UK, the Manchester fab lab is part of a global movement that saw its first outpost spring up in Boston, USA, back in 2003. Eddie is quick to acknowledge the opportunity that comes from being part of a global network of labs:
“One fab lab on its own is great, but it’s not going to have that much impact. But if we have 30 labs UK-wide, that are all working closely together, they can do things en masse, with a much bigger impact. If we have 150 labs worldwide, we’ve got a huge global impact, potentially. We’re trying to create a whole new ecosystem around fab labs, and a whole new commerce model as well.
“Historically, ideas were local and and the manufacturing was done globally. Whereas it’s moving to the other way around now. Ideas can go global, through the internet, and the manufacturing can be local,” he says.
A designer can put a product or design file online and a customer can buy that from anywhere in the world. And that purchase can take several different forms, from a fabrication commissioned from the original designer in their local fab lab, to a locally manufactured product, made by the customer or a local fabricator operating from a nearby fab lab.
“If you’re a designer or product developer, you’ve got instant access to a global market of buyers. If you’re a buyer, you can buy things, and you can either make it yourself if you want, or you can have people make it, but it’s made locally.
“You’ve got a social and a sustainable impact locally: local materials, local manufacturers and people working on it. You’ve got the environmental impact, because you’re not shipping things all round the world. And there’s a social impact because people can go and make it themselves, if they want to,” he adds.
And this principle of global ideas / local production also opens up new possibilities for innovation driven by local ingenuity and constraints:
“If you come into the fab lab on an open day, and use it free-of-charge, you share what you’re doing with the fab lab community, so it’s an open design / open innovation principle. That’s what you give back to the community; you document your designs, your machine settings, your materials. The idea being that someone in a fab lab in Ghana, for instance, can use your work. They’ve got the same machines, the same equipment, the same materials, they can reproduce it and maybe improve it, and then share it back”, says Eddie.