A FabLab is essentially a high-tech workshop. The term FabLab was born out of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). The majority of FabLabs serve as small-scale workshops that inspire innovation, invention and encourage local entrepreneurship. Additionally, FabLabs are rapidly expanding as interdisciplinary educational spaces in colleges and public schools to enhance STE(A)M curricula. They are places where the community can connect and collaborate to create, learn, empower, educate, and, ultimately, make awesome things. To be part of the FabLab community is to be part of an emerging and engaging knowledge network where technicians, professionals, inventors, educators, students, and hobbyists of all disciplines can collaborate not only to create things at an extremely local level but also to engineer and fabricate solutions to global problems.
What’s Inside a FabLab?
The first FabLab was built around a class at MIT called “how to make (almost) anything” and it is this very ideal that is imbedded in every FabLab. FabLabs are essentially a traditional shop class setting infused with a variety of high-tech tools and digital fabrication machines. These include 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, routers, desktop mills, vinyl cutters, 3D scanners, an electronics bench, and conventional shop tools. FabLab machines are versatile and can work with a variety of materials including wood, metal, plastics, fabrics, electronic PCB boards and many more. In FabLabs students can produce diverse objects, ranging from engraved signs to custom hardware and even pre-fab houses. Given the wide variety of machinery, tools and materials available in a FabLab, the creative potential is vast.
FabLabs in Schools?
Initially intended for industry and manufacturing, FabLabs are now being incorporated into schools, museums, and public libraries. They are the embodiment of hands-on STE(A)M education. Students are able to learn by designing and fabricating things themselves. They also broaden their skills through interdisciplinary cooperation, learning in a community atmosphere, and interacting with the international FabLab network. Through engagement with FabLabs students are able to attain important and much-needed job-ready skills as well as fuel their interest in STE(A)M careers. Schools now have the opportunity to revitalize their outdated shop facilities with state-of-the-art FabLabs that attract and engage students eager to become part of the unprecedented technological boom of our time.
CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machines are used to control the movement of machine tools in manufacturing and product development. The majority of “high-tech” machines found in a FabLab are controlled using the CNC process. These include: 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, lathes, mills, and routers. More specifically, CNC machines provide key commands for fabrication by computers (either internal to the machine or connected externally). The majority of modern CNC systems use computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software programs. Technicians and designers produce a computer file of the commands necessary to operate a particular machine and direct it to create the specified object.
The fabrication possibilities for CNC machines are vast. Some of the things CNC machines can do include: laser cutting, welding, plasma cutting, wire and tubing bending, fabric cutting, sewing, routing, picking and placing (PnP), milling and sawing. Nearly every commercial product you purchase is produced using CNC technologies. There are numerous advantages to using CNC machines, the main ones being that they (1) allow for a manufacturing process that’s more precise than manual machining, and (2) the process can then be duplicated in exactly the same manner. CNC machines can also produce complex shapes that would be impossible with manual machining alone.