Owning a 3D printer doesn’t make it a FabLab!

Everywhere you look today, there seems to be a FabLab! While some elements of the name apply in many facilities, there are basic differences between a true FabLab and a shop that has gone out and bought a 3D printer!

I suspect this stems from a series of technological events that happened to converge at about the same time. The ensuing excitement created a mashup of ideas and a somewhat inaccurate use of the term “FabLab”!

First of all, 3D printers burst onto the mainstream scene seemingly overnight. While the underlying science has been around since the mid-1980’s, suddenly the digital fabrication machines were affordable and user-friendly enough for the small business, workshop and home markets. Popular Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter were pre-selling home machines and 3D printers became the darlings of tech blogs and social media.

But where were 3D printers located that were generating designs and cool public domain photos for online use? Well, many examples of 3D printed parts came from FabLabs.

The resulting lapse in logic went something like this: A FabLab is making cool parts with a 3D printer so anyplace that has a 3D printer must be a FabLab! Like many things in life, reality is somewhat more complex.

So what exactly IS a FabLab?

FabLab is a term coined by Neil Gershenfeld for his Fabrication Laboratory at MIT where he envisioned “anyone could make {ALMOST} anything!” FabLabs utilize all manner of high- and low-tech equipment to make things –- everything from yes, 3D printers, to vinyl cutters.

fablab workingA FabLab is really a DIGITAL fabrication laboratory. Designs are usually created on a computer from a CAD file. Some CAD programs are sophisticated for engineering applications like AutoCAD, while others are best for kids like TinkerCAD, and there’s everything in between. The CAD design file is then fed to the appropriate machine –- a 3D printer or laser cutter or CNC milling machining or whatever is right for the job at hand. And Voila! Almost anything is created!

In addition to multiple technology platforms for fabrication, a key component of a real FabLab is that it is Open Source. Makers help and train each other, building upon the ideas and work of others to improve a design, process, or part. It’s the fabrication equivalent of Linux software. Although lots of commercially viable ideas are hatched in FabLabs, it is not a space well suited to product manufacturing. Once ideas reach that stage, they move on to more appropriate settings.

FabLabs in the MIT model are now flourishing all over the world. A FabLab in a city in Afghanistan is working together to create a WiFi network. FabLabs are in Kenya, New Zealand, Europe, and of course, many cities in the US.

And while all FabLabs usually have a 3D printer, it is not a 3D printer alone that makes them a FabLab!