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Fabulous Fabricators

Solar Sinter - Markus Kayser
Helen Baxter reports from the Fab8NZ Public Symposium on inks that do things, bioprinting organs, machines that replicate, and printing glass from desert sand with solar power.


In this guest MsBehaviour file, Helen Baxter reports from the Fab8NZ Public Symposium on inks that do things, bioprinting organs, machines that replicate, and printing glass from desert sand with solar power.

* * *

Wellington is now home to the first Fab Lab in Australasia, based at Massey University. The Fab Lab was launched during the Fab8NZ conference, with a week of workshops and a public symposium day hosted by Neil Gershenfeld from MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms. There were some incredibly Big Ideas shared during the symposium, as well as real things already made that sound like science fiction.

You can watch podcasts of all webcasts from the week or the presentations from the public symposium.


The first speaker was Jennifer Lewis from the University of Illinois on Printing Functional Materials or ‘inks that do things’.  She showed a pen with conductive silver ink and talked about printed origami as a simple route to making complex 3d forms.  

The next session was on Bio-printing with Robin Levin, explaining how scientists use 'bio scaffolds', or cell-free collagen structures which they seed with a patient’s own cells for transplant. They have already bio-printed beating hearts with kidneys coming soon, and eventually will be able to image organs in-situ and repair them without transplants.

The final foundation session was on Living Foundries, with John Glass of the J. Craig Venter Institute talking about how you can print Life through synthetic biology. A 'synthetic cell' operates off a chemically synthesised genome where the DNA is the software, and the cell is the hardware. He states that "the aim is a better understanding of life, to increase the predictability of biological circuits and look for new forms of energy".


The first presentation in the implementations session was on Fabricating Fabricators, with Vik and Suz Olliver, from Diamond Age Solutions in Waitakere. Vik is a founder of the RepRap rapid prototyping system or ‘humanity's first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine’. With a RepRap you could travel to Mars and make what you need - when you get there. Vik finished with one of the best quotes of the day: “If you don’t like the way society works, print a new one”.

One of the standout sessions for sheer coolness was the Solar Sinter project, presented by MIT’s Markus Kayser, the ‘Solar MacGuyver’.  Watch the video of his solar powered machine that melts desert sand into stunning glass structures like bowls. Future applications of this technology could be welding, smelting, or printing buildings, in hot, desert countries.

The most thought provoking talk for me was on Rapid-Prototyping and Security from Michael Hopmeier and Benjamin Mako Hill. The consequences of people being able to print master keys for locks, or even parts for nuclear weapons is a concern, but as the speakers said, banning the technology is not the answer and "giving people the freedom to express themselves has a price."


The afternoon sessions opened with Share What You Make — Under the hood at Instructables, with a webcast from Eric Wilhelm of Instructables, and a personal perspective from Christchurch-based Instructables author Bridget McKendry. The first instructable Bridget made was a knitted Tardis, and she talked about how sites like Instructables encourage a sharing community among crafters and makers.

David ten Have from Ponoko talked about how they have taken the personal fabrication idea from Wellington to the world. "We wanted to take a factory and smear it across the face of the earth". Ponoko keeps the point of production as close to the point of consumption as possible, and consists of a digital product catalogue, materials suppliers, digital fabrication technology and a marketplace. Dave believes that personal fabrication will not lead to the death of the industrial designer, and points out that patents can’t keep up with personal fabrication as there are too many iterations.

The next session was on fabrication on a grand scale with Prototyping for Design and Construction from Andrew Maher, Arup and James Gardiner, EnExG Laing O’Rourke. They showed some stunning printed structures including artificial reefs, 'the cities of the sea' with complex, diverse populations and habitats just like human cities.

The final session on applications took us off planet to Fabrication For and In Space with John Hines, from the NASA-Ames research centre who have a Fab Lab called 'SpaceShop' . He outlined the new challenges  that working in space brings, telepresence, colonisation, space debris hazard, and access to affordable abundant power.


The final afternoon sessions opened with Blurring the Lines Between Physical and Fantastic from JP Lewis at Weta Digital. Most of the symposium speakers talked about taking digital designs into the real world, but Weta are doing the opposite. They work with data on an incredible scale and Avatar had from 100 to 10,000 plants in each shot, with hundreds of millions of polygons in each frame. Their animation is a combination of science and art to make the virtual more realistic than a prop was 30 years ago

John Kao from the Institute for Large Scale Innovation talked about Innovation: Good, Bad, and Ugly, and took us through the three key stages, Innovation 1.0  from the industrial era, Innovation 2.0 from the Silicon Valley scene, with Innovation 3.0 as putting human need in the centre of the process. He says innovation is like jamming with jazz musicians, a social process for putting ideas on stage.

Christopher Earney, UNHCR Innovation showed in Technology and Refugees some of the challenges from the increasing urbanisation of refugees and how technology empowers them. One female refugee said proudly, "I study at university in the USA, without having to go there. I have friends, I have Facebook.'” As Neil Gershenfeld says, "we need to be funding these technologies, not for the technologies themselves but for their social impact."

The final speaker for the day was Piri Sciascia, Victoria University, Pro Vice-Chancellor Maori on Te Aro Taumata : Where Two Worlds Meet. He talked about digital fabrication as tipua - something scary, but you don't want to be without it and the power it has. "You are the Tipua, the dragons and denizens of today."

The symposium finished with the 2012 Fab Academy graduation, followed by the official inauguration of the New Zealand Fab Lab. To learn more about the history of Fab Labs read an interview with Fab8NZ organiser Chris Jackson on Digital Fabrication Frontiers.

I’d like to thank Chris and the Massey Fab Lab team for organising such a great event, and I’m looking forward to visiting and making something at the Fab Lab during the open public sessions at weekends.

Recommended Reading
Future of Fabrication Report: from The Institute for the Future.

Written by


29 Aug 2012

I'm Co-Founder and Content Director for Mohawk Media - telling stories that matter through animation, infographics and elearning.  I love script writing and making complicated subjects simple and engaging, especially mental health & wellness, science, technology and governent animations. 

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