What is a FAB LAB? What’s going on in there?

Where did the Fab Lab concept arise from? What goes on inside a Fab Lab? What research lines and objectives do they pursue? What type of projects can we develop in a Fab Lab?

Published: May 06, 2013
What is a FAB LAB? What’s going on in there?

fabLAB Asturias it's an educational tool open to all the publics. Photo: LABoral

By Román Torre (@RTorre)
http://welovecode.net http://www.romantorre.com

Only 10 years ago, at one of the most important technological research centres in the world, Massachussets Institute of Technology (M.I.T), and through several research groups inside its Medialab - parent of the concept we are discussing today- and many other innovative ideas and truly transforming projects, the idea that forms the concept of “Fab Lab” was born.

Approaching the idea in a very direct way and without paying attention to other aspects of its historical progression - which anyone can find and read about in more detail on the internet - in my experience a Fab Lab acts as a space equipped with all types of machinery for prototyping and building “almost anything”. Premises where citizens, with the right tools and through an understanding of fabrication processes from scratch, share their knowledge with other users and steer a conscious path towards their own autonomy in terms of the digital production of ideas based on prototypes and physical objects of all kinds.

The growing interest in social autonomy and ordinary human development through technological means, along with all of the empowerment represented by the Fab Lab concept, has meant that it hasn´t taken long for it to reach some private or public centres oriented towards social and technological experimentation around the world - from Barcelona to Ghana, Afghanistan to Tokyo - although sometimes with less sophisticated machinery and priorities than in the American and European laboratories. LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón and its fabLAB, are integrated in this worldwide network, promoted by M.I.T. itself, and you need only to consult this map to fully grasp the network’s reach. You probably won´t find all of those that are up and running at this very moment because the map is not updated, but it has already become an impressive network.


Image of the Asturias fabLAB

“Parametric Design”, “Digital Fabrication”, “The Internet of Things” and “Additive Fabrication” are just some of the concepts that you often hear once inside these workshops. Some spring directly from the specific technical possibilities of its machinery, but others are exactly the seeds of new technological research lines already undertaken by many major companies and investors in all sorts of fields and markets.

To give just a couple of examples, in the standard Fab Lab lines of work we find groups of users interested in the implementation of electronic tools (software and hardware) for collecting large amounts of environmental data on the city. This is the case of Smart-Citizen Kit in Fab Lab Barcelona, where through all kinds of sensors prototyped with open code microprocessors (specifically based on those offered by the Arduino platform) it aims to visualise and share in a simple way the complex and diverse analysis of all the large-scale masses of environmental data likely to be generated by the city itself, creating in a distributed manner what they refer to as: “a citizen-sensor network”.

SmartCitizen.Me from Fab Lab Barcelona on Vimeo.

As a second example of a work line - and one of the most common in Fab Labs linked to the faculties of architecture and design - we can find groups such as the one created at the University of Seville’s Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura [Higher Technical School of Architecture] which is very much focused on design, creation and the improvement of objects for daily use with different materials: wood, metal, cardboard, etc. All of this is produced using the most sophisticated CNC-type machines, 2-dimensional laser cutting or 3-dimensional plastic extrusion. Machines and devices that having reduced their cost and facilitated their usability exponentially has resulted in techniques and uses which were unthinkable years ago and that are far more affordable and fast when it comes to putting all kinds of creative ideas into practice (a task which was also unthinkable before for a user without any links to the industry or the different professional occupations related to fabrication or designing objects using traditional methods).

Poster of the presentation of the Fab Lab Sevilla in Lima (Peru)

In addition, it is difficult to add up all the users who through meetings, workshops, prototype development, plans and material shared on the internet, and through being promoted by the actual Fab Labs and associated centres, transcend the idea of a common learning space and move and set up directly their own “mini-fabs” or parts of these in their own homes – sometimes even in their own studies- forming very powerful and active virtual communities who develop all kinds of documentation and plans, etc., available to all those interested in the proposed work areas.
An example of which we will shortly have some news on the LABoral blog can be found in the RepRap project in which the users themselves set about self-replicating their own machines and distributing new kits to other users while they are developing their own prototypes or common use pieces in 3 dimension with extruded plastic material.


It is simply enough to give an overview of its technical possibilities and all the activities that have taken place at fabLAB since its opening - courses on the use of its tools, international artist residencies which employ its machines to generate prototypes, collaborations with institutions and schools working in providing students with creative programming skills to tackle school dropout – in order to realise the potential of these types of spaces as a source for experimentation and the production of innovative hybrids, which is so lacking in small-sized regions such as Asturias with a past closely linked to industry and traditional manufacturing.


As I see it, our region enjoys a great number of potentially lively and creative people who often do not have the tools, equipment and opportunities for open knowledge within their own environment. I believe that fabLAB is a great opportunity and a path we should not let pass us by, in human and economic terms.


Bonus track: Don't loose the talk in TED givern by Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, driven group of the idea.


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