Fab Labs @ 10

3D Printing & Imaging Craft & Design Workshop
Fab Labs @ 10
The Fab Lab House, built at Fab Lab Barcelona
downloadFab Labs are a global community of local workshops that enable invention by providing access to tools and guidance for digital fabrication. The fab lab concept sprang from an overwhelming student response to hands-on making enabled by the digital fabrication tools used in the MIT rapid prototyping class MAS: 863, How to Make (Almost) Anything. A 2001 National Science Foundation grant seeded the first fab labs as an educational outreach program.
Revisiting our story in the premiere issue of Make: magazine, we check back in with the Fab Lab Network team, which has grown to over 250 labs worldwide, about what they’ve been up to and where the community is headed. – Make Editors

Open and Collaborative

Fab labs empower individuals with tools, skills, and a knowledgeable community of experts once available only to specialized professions. A single maker can engage in all aspects of digitally fabricating things, from computer-aided design to electronics design, production, and programming, to machining, mold-making, and more. Fab labs share an open and collaborative philosophy and an evolving inventory of core capabilities that allow people and projects to be shared across globally networked local labs.

Make: vol 1

In early 2005, I read an article about fab labs in the first issue of Make: magazine. My reaction at the time was, “Wow, I didn’t realize a vinyl cutter is less than $2,000!” We immediately ordered one and started doing our own in-house signage for gallery shows at AS220, a community arts center in Providence, Rhode Island. Ten years later, AS220 Labs is a full digital fabrication lab and a Fab Academy instruction site (see page 37) for five years. The Fab Lab Network has achieved a great deal with a consistent vision, conscientious followthrough, and a methodology of embracing chaos.

Shawn Wallace, AS220 Labs Director, Getting Started with Raspberry Pi co-author, artist, and programmer.


Fab Future

Fab Lab Kamakura, a former sake warehouse repurposed for a new age.
Fab Lab Kamakura, a former sake warehouse repurposed for a new age.

When I did the inaugural interview in Make: about fab labs, I had no expectation for the explosive growth that was in store for both. “Making” has grown from a verb to a noun to a movement. And fab labs have been rapidly multiplying ever since, up to a network of hundreds of sites.

In retrospect, there was an inverse relationship between what I thought was easy and hard. The research roadmap to the Star Trek replicator is progressing nicely, from computers controlling machines to machines making machines to coding the construction of programmable materials. What was much more difficult was building the organizational capacity to match.

MIT FabLab Norway

The technological goal of fab labs is to make themselves obsolete, by being able to make fab labs (see Fab 2.0, next page). Their real legacy is likely to be the .org/.com/.edu ecosystem that’s emerging to support them. The personalization of fabrication challenges the historical separation of education, industry, infrastructure, aid, and art. This is a historical moment analogous to the appearance of the Internet that required the invention of new organizations to create and connect it. As important as that was, the ability to turn data into things and things into data poses an even larger question that fab labs are helping answer: How will we live, work, and play in a world where anyone can make (almost) anything?

—Neil Gershenfeld, Originator of the fab labs, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and the Fab Academy. Author of Fab, When Things Start To Think, The Nature of Mathematical Modeling, and The Physics of Information Technology.


Fab City

In 2001, the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) and MIT began to collaboratively explore the impact of information technologies on the homes and cities of the future. We wanted to make Barcelona the first self-sufficient city in the world, using recycled materials to produce all the resources (things, energy, and food) we needed.

The Fab House produced at Fab Lab Barcelona for the Solar Decathlon Europe uses an intentionally anthropomorphic, climate-passive parametric design.
The Fab House produced at Fab Lab Barcelona for the Solar Decathlon Europe uses an intentionally anthropomorphic, climate-passive parametric design.

HYPERHABITAT_high-5The implementation of Fab Lab Barcelona was our first step toward empowering a new entrepreneurial middle class. We envisioned a metropolis where our citizens could translate their knowledge directly into production through digital fabrication.

In Barcelona, digital fabrication became the first step toward empowering citizens to translate knowledge into production. Within our lab we made the award-winning Fab Lab house for Solar Decathlon Europe. We re-imagined the world as a “Hyperhabitat” where objects, buildings or cities become a re-programmable networked system of intelligent nodes.

I now work for the Barcelona City Council, where a new class of politicians are reinventing the urban landscape as we scale our fab labs to self-sustaining fab cities.

—Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect, Barcelona City Council. Founder of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and Fab Lab Barcelona. Author of The Self-Sufficient City and Geologics.


Fab 2.0: Machines that Make

Going to a fab lab to use digital fabrication tools is great, but what if you want to use a particular machine all the time or add specific functionality that doesn’t exist yet? Create your own!

Jonathan Ward's MTM Snap-Lock, the precursor to the Othermill: http://mtm.cba.mit.edu
Jonathan Ward’s MTM Snap-Lock, the precursor to the Othermill: http://mtm.cba.mit.edu

It turns out, the accuracy and precision of fab lab equipment is well suited to producing more digital fabrication tools. In fact, several companies have fab lab roots, including Ultimaker, Other Machine Co., Formlabs, and Taktia.

The PopFab mill/printer/vinyl cutter in a suitcase by Nadya Peek and Ilan Moyer.
The PopFab mill/printer/vinyl cutter in a suitcase by Nadya Peek and Ilan Moyer.

To make it easier to create homegrown “Machines That Make” we are developing modular hardware, software (“Turn Codes Into Things”) and machine control platforms. In the near future, prototyping a new fabrication machine could be as simple as bolting together standard motion components, networking them in a fab-bus control system, and adapting an in-browser interface.

Nadya Peek, PhD student at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Machines That Make developer (PopFab, MTM Snap)


Fab Art

Haystack Mountain School of Crafts became involved with the Fab Lab Network in 2009 when I invited Neil Gershenfeld to speak at our conference, Making: Past, Present, and Future. We wanted to examine ways that humans have used technology to create, from the simplest hand tools to digital manufacturing. Gershenfeld brought along a smaller version of a fab lab so conference participants could experience working with computers to make things. While we don’t teach traditional crafts, our program is grounded in the traditions of craft — working with our hands to manipulate materials and having a deep understanding of the capabilities of those materials, including clay, metal, fiber, wood, and glass.

"My Lungs Your Heart", by Lu Heintz. A hand-drawn sketch was scanned, etched into copper plate using Haystacks CNC router, then formed, patined and assembled using traditional metal working techniques.
Early stages of “My Lungs Your Heart”, by Lu Heintz. A hand-drawn sketch was scanned, etched into copper plate using Haystack’s CNC router.
Completed “My Lungs Your Heart”, by Lu Heintz. The CNC’ed copper plate was then formed, patined and assembled using traditional metal working techniques.

Gershenfeld compares bringing digital equipment to Haystack to Bob Dylan going electric at Newport. Many of those in attendance couldn’t see the connection between our craft/material world and the digital world. To some of us, though, it seemed an important and vital one to make. The connection is this: Humans are toolmakers and these are new tools. The wisdom in working comes with knowing which tool to use when and what material to use in making work. Our lab has extended ways that we can work and reminds us of our legacy and our future as makers.

—Stuart Kestenbaum, Poet and director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine




FAB10 is the 10th international conference, symposium and annual meeting of the Fab Lab Network, an open, creative community of fabricators, artists, scientists, engineers, educators, students, amateurs, and professionals of all ages.

This year’s gathering assembled fabricators from over 250 labs from more than 40 countries. Featured events include live onsite collaborative prototyping of a pavilion, an exhibition of 100 Barcelona-based makers, a Fab Kids program, and a 1,000 square meter “pop up” fabrication facility.

Elefab, a zip-tied, cardboard 3D puzzle elephant assembled at a Fab Kids workshop.
Elefab, a zip-tied, cardboard 3D puzzle elephant assembled at a Fab Kids workshop.

The overarching conference theme is, “From Fab Labs to Fab Cities,” featuring Barcelona’s unveiling of its road map for attaining self-sufficiency through digital fabrication in the years to come.

—Tomas Diez, Director of Fab Lab Barcelona, FAB10 Barcelona conference co-chair, co-founder of Smart Citizen


Fab Foundation

The Fab Foundation is an experiment in how to scale, support, and serve a globally distributed technical community. It began in 2009 to aid the rapid growth of the vibrant and culturally diverse fab lab network by providing some of the necessary connective tissue.

We have since evolved to become a foundation of foundations, supporting regional networks of fab labs as labs scale rapidly across continents and providing international services in areas such as finance, insurance, employment, education, communications, funding, and lab technical deployment. Recently, our nonprofit was awarded $10 million by Chevron Corporation to build and support labs across the USA.

The Open Source Beehives evolved from John Rees’ 2013 Fab Academy final project; a collaboration with Annemie Maes of OKNO and of Green Fab Lab's Jonathan Minchin.
The Open Source Beehives evolved from John Rees’ 2013 Fab Academy final project; a collaboration with Annemie Maes of OKNO and of Green Fab Lab’s Jonathan Minchin.

The Fab Foundation is also seeking a Federal charter through the United States National Fab Lab Network Act, currently before Congress.

—Sherry Lassiter, Director of the Fab Foundation, Program Manager Center for Bits and Atoms


Fab Academy

The Fluxmasynth, created at the Providence branch of the Fab Academy by Elliot Clapp

Roughly equivalent to MIT’s rapid prototyping course, MAS 863: How to Make (Almost) Anything, the Fab Academy provides advanced technical instruction through a unique, distributed, hands-on digital fabrication curriculum.

Professor Gershenfeld lectures globally through an interactive, two-way platform while experts mentor local student groups. Diploma completion is evaluated by a student’s documented portfolio of skill-based projects rather than in time or credits.

If a 19-week prototyping marathon that tests your mettle as you and your classmates pull together to attempt every digital fabrication and electronics prototyping process possible in a fab lab sounds like fun (it is!) — rise to the challenge and join us next spring at a fab lab near you through fabacademy.org.

On a personal note, Shawn Wallace was my Fab Academy instructor during the pilot year of the program. Without Neil’s interview in Make: vol 1, it’s highly unlikely you’d be reading this copy now.

Anna Kaziunas France, Fab Academy Dean of Students and Digital Fabrication Editor at Maker Media.

Being Fab-ulous

Setting up a fab lab involves accessing the right tools for the curriculum. The current recommended Inventory costs ~$50,000 in equipment and ~$10,000 in materials and includes:

  • A laser cutter for press-fit assembly
  • A 4′ x 8′ CNC router for making large, structural objects like furniture and molds for composites
  • A sign cutter, to produce flexible copper circuits, antennas and printing masks
  • A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make 3D molds and surface-mount circuit boards
  • Programming tools for low-cost, high-speed embedded processors
  • A 3D scanner and printer
  • Custom software to run any fab lab machine (see Turn Code Into Things)

Learn more about the fab labs.

Fab Timeline

Key moments in fab lab evolution.

  • 1998 1st MAS: 863 How to Make (Almost) Anything MIT Class
  • 2001 The CBA founded; National Science Foundation grant founds early fab lab educational outreach; IAAC inaugurated
  • 2002 Experimental labs: Boston’s Museum of Science, Vigyan Ashram in India
  • 2003 1st fab lab launched in Boston, followed by Costa Rica, Norway and Ghana, most future fab labs are self-funded
  • 2005 Fab lab user group meeting “Fab1,” Symposium on Digital Fabrication in Norway, “Fab2”
  • 2006 Fab3: South Africa
  • 2007 Fab Lab Barcelona founded, Fab4: Chicago
  • 2008 Hyperhabitat: Reprogramming the World in Venice, AS220 Labs chartered
  • 2009 Machine begin Making Machines/fab labs 2.0 begins, Fab Foundation incorporated
  • 2009 Fab Academy program begins, Fab5: India
  • 2010 Fab6: Netherlands, Fab Lab House built
  • 2011 Fab7: Peru, MTM Snap, Haystack Lab realized
  • 2012 Fab8: New Zealand, Fab Lab Kamakura organized
  • 2013 S.1705: National Fab Lab Network Act introduced
  • 2013 Fab9: Japan, PopFab
  • 2014 Fab10 Barcelona


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Anna Kaziunas France is interested practical digital fabrication focused project documentation (anything that turns codes into things), as well as adventures in synthetic biology, biohacking, personal genomics and programmable materials.

She's currently working on the forthcoming book "Design for CNC: Practical Joinery Techniques, Projects, and Tips for CNC-routed Furniture".

She’s also the Academic Dean of the global Fab Academy program, the co-author of Getting Started with MakerBot and compiled the Make: 3D Printing book.

Formerly, she worked as an editor for Make: Books, was digital fabrication editor and skill builder section editor for Make: Magazine, and directed Make:'s 2015 and 2014 3D Printer Shootout testing events.

She likes things that are computer-controlled, parametric, and open— preferably all three.

Find her on her personal site, Twitter and Facebook.

View more articles by Anna Kaziunas France


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