Digital Fabrication Frontiers

Fab Lab NZ instigator and industrial design lecturer Chris Jackson.
Fab8NZ instigator and industrial design lecturer Chris Jackson tells us more about the world of digital fabrication, fab lab networks, and how far away we are from a Star Trek-style replicator.


Winning the pitch for the international Fab Lab forum and symposium, at Massey University in Wellington, naturally came with the condition that the host country must have a Fab Lab. And so with a lick of lime green, brilliant blue and hot pink paint, Australasia’s first Fab Lab was born.

Instigator and industrial design lecturer Chris Jackson tells us more about the world of digital fabrication and fab labs.

“There’s strong evidence that open source can actually speed up innovation. I really believe that if we work together and share our strengths, we can be more creative, especially in a small country like New Zealand.”

FAB8NZ is hosted by The College of Creative Arts at Massey University, in conjunction with the Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT, The Fab Lab Network and the Affect Research Centre, from 22-28 August in Wellington.

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What is a Fab Lab, how does this compare to ‘maker spaces’?

Fab Labs provide ordinary people with access to the modern tools of invention, eg laser cutters, milling machines and 3D printers. There are maker spaces here in Wellington but Fab Labs have to share an inventory which enables networked making. As well as the strong open source philosophy that a lot of maker spaces share, Fab Labs are part of a global network so there is disseminated global expertise that enables projects to be done even when one local area lacks the skills to complete the project.

What’s the origin of the Fab Lab network?

Fab Labs were started by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms in 2003. The Center director Professor Neil Gershenfeld was teaching a paper there called “How to make (almost) anything”, which turned out to be wildly popular. The Center secured funding to assemble millions of US dollars worth of machines for research in digital fabrication, ultimately aiming to develop programmable molecular assemblers that will be able to make almost anything. As part of their funding conditions, they were required to run a public outreach programme, and they decided to get really creative with it – taking digital fabrication into low income communities (eg inner-city Boston) and then further and further afield. Now there are about 130 Fab Labs worldwide from the north of Norway to South Africa, but Massey’s is the first in Australasia.

What is digital fabrication?

The “digital” bit is about using computers to design whatever you want to make, and getting the computer to talk to whatever does the “fabrication”, eg CNC router or milling machine. These days, it really is possible to make almost anything, although some things – like human organs – are still experimental. Fab Labs generally operate at the lower cost end of the spectrum. We’re about putting the power to make things into the hands of the people; an alternative to mass production solving problems for a market of one.

What are some of the ‘operating principles’ and ‘range of equipment’ you need to be MIT affiliated?

Fab labs are committed to cooperation and open sourcing ideas, although the IP produced in the lab is for you to protect how you see fit. We share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across all labs. Currently, the basic inventory required to be a Fab Lab includes:

  • A computer-controlled lasercutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts
  • A larger (4'x8') numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house-) sized parts
  • A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
  • A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surface-mount circuit boards
  • Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors

These work with components and materials optimised for use in the field, and are controlled with custom software for integrated design, manufacturing, and project management. This inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a fab lab being able to make a fab lab.

Tell us a bit about the physical space at Massey and who was involved in setting it up?

We stole the industrial design tearoom! The Fab Lab takes up four spaces in the James Coe Industrial Design Centre at Massey Wellington. We’ve given it a complete overhaul, and also linked rooms, which were previously separate for workflow purposes. I think we’ve got the world’s only lime green, brilliant blue and hot pink Fab Lab.

We’ve got a great team here who have put in huge hours to get the lab ready for when the MIT guys arrived last week. It’s been a real team effort that is starting to feel more like a family. It’s completely indicative of the fab lab network and ethos.

Who is the space open to?

During the week, our Massey Wellington students are top of the list, supported by staff. In the weekends, we’re planning to hold public open hours where anyone can come along.

What is the focus of NZ’s first Fab Lab?

The focus will be initially serving our staff and students, but we have a long term research agenda working with SME’s, research institutions, other universities and members of the public. If you are interested in collaboration, then please contact us.

How can connections between disciplines and industries be a catalyst to more innovation in New Zealand?

There’s strong evidence that open source can actually speed up innovation.  I really believe that if we work together and share our strengths, we can be more creative, especially in a small country like New Zealand.  I see ‘Number 8 wire mentality’  currently used as a pejorative term in New Zealand, whereas DIY is the zeitgeist in the rest of the globe. They are only just catching up. We need to take the mentality and couple it with cutting-edge technology, high-end design outcomes and trans-disciplinary collaborations to be one of the world’s most innovative nations. It’s completely possible, but we need to the government to re-focus its agenda.

What are the plans to grow the network wider, within NZ and Australasia?

The great thing about having Fab8 in New Zealand is that it is open to anyone interested in setting up a Fab Lab, so we’ve got several groups coming along. I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to people about their ideas. The biggest challenge, I think, is to get Fab Labs into the Pacific and I’d love to connect with more people who want to help make that happen.

How did you personally connect with the Fab Lab network, how did this relate to your design research?

My work has been primarily focused on different approaches to DIY since around 2005.  This began with a focus on sustainability, but then evolved to be driven by digital fabrication and craft. I also actively pursue collaborations with interesting partners from any discipline.

What was your pitch to bring Fab8 to NZ?

Wellington has a great reputation as a creative and innovative capital. We’re a gregarious nation, tech and design-savvy and internationally connected. New Zealand is also legendarily beautiful. All that appealed, I guess.
We were up against the Japanese, who already have Fab Labs, and it was always my view that bringing Fab8 to New Zealand would kick start the movement in Australasia.

What are some of the highlights of the conference, workshops and symposium?

There are about 100 talented makers from all over the world coming for the week-long Fab8 meeting, and a mix of designers, artists, creators, makers and hackers attending the weekend Fab Camp. That’ll be a buzz, seeing all those people making their projects in our Fab Lab. For example, we’re running the annual World Fab Cup where everyone is challenged to make a flying machine and we’ll be operating them in Massey’s Museum Building Great Hall on the final evening.

It’ll be a privilege having Neil (Gershenfeld) here for a couple of days, but most importantly it’s the network that makes this happen, and just as there has been a team at Massey facilitating this, there has been a great team at MIT and within the network who have mirrored our own efforts.
Obviously the one-day symposium is packed with speakers that rarely appear in New Zealand – when was the last time you had a chance to hear people from NASA, WETA and MIT all in one day? (and that is only a small section of the line-up).

What’s the new frontier of digital fabrication? How far away are we from a Star Trek-style replicator?!

Near and very far. At the public symposium, Dr Tony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute is going to speak by live video link from the US about his work on bio-printing human organs. You can see him on YouTube with an experimental human kidney that he’s used 3D printing technology to create.

Replicator aside, if we can’t get there, imagine all the things that will be achieved along the way.

What’s your big idea for 2013?

Fab Labs across Australasia and the South Pacific region.

* * * The Big Idea 10th Birthday Questions * * *

What does The Big Idea mean to you?

It’s a great hub for New Zealand creativity.

What changes have you noticed in industrial design in the past 10 years?

More openness, DIY and technology driven projects, and a move through salubrious exclusive design into the realm of the maker, and inclusive projects.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges for the next decade?

Giving people the ways and means to create their own world and deal with their own problems, decoupled from an insidious financial system. Materials for digital fabrication is a huge area for research and exploration, as are socially conscious design efforts. Bringing together science, technology, engineering and design is also hugely important.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

23 Aug 2012

The Big Idea Editor Cathy Aronson is a journalist, photo journalist and digital editor.

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