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fab8nz Introducing Fab Labs

This article originally appeared in Object magazine issue 63. A list of all articles from fab8nz is available here.

In 2001, Professor Neil Gershenfeld founded the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Developed out of CBA and his popular class ‘How To Make (Almost) Anything’ was a laboratory of machinery and technology, tasked with allowing participants to do exactly that.

With funding of the scale necessary to procure machines with titles like ‘Resonetics examiner laser micromachining station’ (a laser-based system designed to fabricate micro-machined components as small as one micron) came an expectation for social outreach. And so the first non-MIT Fab Lab (for Fabrication Laboratory) was born.

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At the time of the August 2012 fab8nz conference in New Zealand there were 135 Fab Labs globally—ANAT is set to open the first Australian lab in Adelaide in October 2012. At the moment, this number is doubling approximately every year and a half, but with the first of a planned 130 just opened in Russia, amongst a slew of Labs in development, it can be assumed that this algorithm will shortly be outdated.

Each Fab Lab is outfitted with a range of machinery designed for fabrication in different forms, from 3D printers and laser cutters to CNC routers and water jet cutters. Combined with the creative power of the people using the machines, and utilising an array of both open source and licensed software, these Labs become a space for innovation and creation, both for the technical and newcomers alike.

The Fab Charter outlines Fab Labs as ‘a global network of local labs, enabling innovation by providing access to tools for digital fabrication.’ They are intended as a community resource—in order to use the name, Labs need to have a portion of their operating time dedicated to open access.

Fab Labs are disparately located, but also differently established. Many are attached to or affiliated with tertiary institutions, while others might be independently set up or aligned to corporate of non-profit organisations. The network of Labs in South Africa, while set up alongside educational or non-profit organisations, have all been seed-funded by the national government, and the Russian network is being established as a governmental priority program to build youth technical creativity.

These differences provide a powerful base on which to create an international network. Whilst many individual priorities exist locally, the overarching goals of collaboration and openly sharing knowledge, developments and ideas draw them together to become a whole, a unified assortment of international entities all pursuing innovation for the benefit of community.

Once a year for the last eight years, representatives from Fab Labs have come together from around the world for a forum and symposium. These conferences, which this year grew from five days to seven, offer opportunities to exchange knowledge and combine forces to begin to lay the foundations for the developments and challenges coming up. And whether their focus is on formal or informal education, industry, or community outreach, the week brings them together to highlight the fact that Fab Labs on their own are just machines—the true potential rests in the hands of the network and people fostering their progress.

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