Is there a Fab Lab in Your Future?

Fab Labs (Fabrication Laboratories) are empowering individuals and small businesses by making high-end manufacturing resources available to local communities.

In the U.S., Fab Labs support STEM education, encourage entrepreneurship and foster economic growth.

How do Fab Labs operate? Can you establish a Fab Lab in your own community? To find out, WaveLengths Magazine interviewed officials who created and manage the Fab Lab at Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC) in Utica New York.

We Interviewed Seyed Akhavi, Dean, Center for Science, Technoloy, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); William McDonald, Director of Community and Workforce Development; David Smith, Instructor of Mathematics and Technical Assistant of Engineering Technologies and Trade; Matthew Snyder, Director of Marketing and Communications; and Jennifer Fanelli, Media Content Coordinator.

WaveLengths – Can you describe your Fab Lab and its mission?

Dean Akhavi – Our Fab Lab makes use of a variety of tools to encourage and promote both education and innovation. Our Fab Lab supports STEM education, in which schools are taking a new, integrated approach to teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

For example, when a math topic is covered in class, the instructor can relate that topic to a product being developed in the Fab Lab. That way, math is no longer an abstract topic, but relates to the design and manufacture of a physical object that the student can see and examine in their hands. The same holds true for science and engineering. Students get to see how the concepts they are learning can be applied to real world applications.

WaveLengths – What equipment do you have at the Fab Lab?

Dean Akhavi – Our Fab Lab includes computers, CAD and modeling software, digitizer, 3D printers, CNC milling machine, laser cutter, CNC router and related support equipment.

WaveLengths – Is the Fab Lab just for MVCC Students?

Dean Akhavi – Our Fab Lab was created for communitywide participation. We opened the Fab Lab in March of this year so we are still building our outreach programs. Initially we are working with our K–12 partners to get youth introduced to this technology and excited about it early in their education. We will also invite local companies to use this facility for some of their training to expose employees to new technology.

David Smith – To help people get started, we recently held a 3D printing class that included instruction using some of the Fab Lab equipment. We are currently in the process of planning entry level courses so that other people can learn how to use the equipment.

WaveLengths - Does everyone have to take classes in order to use the Fab Lab?

David Smith – Not necessarily. In lieu of taking a course, if an individual or company comes to us with a project we will assess their needs and abilities. If they have some experience using CAD or similar design programs we can usually get them started quickly. WaveLengths – I understand that Fab Labs have been located at business campuses, libraries, colleges and so forth. Is there a “best place” for a Fab Lab location?

Matthew Snyder - Colleges tend to do Fab Labs really well. For example, we already have a business faculty and an entrepreneurship curriculum.

Dean Akhavi – MVCC has a great history in terms of providing manufacturing training and education so the Fab Lab has been a perfect fit for us. For example, Solidworks and Mastercam software were used in our classes before we actually had the Fab Lab, and solid modeling has been part of our mechanical engineering tech program. The new Fab Lab complements what we have been doing.

WaveLengths – Do you give advice to aspiring product developers regarding how to bring their new products to market?

Dean Akhavi – That’s another advantage of locating a Fab Lab in a college setting. If they choose, people can take business and marketing courses that cover those aspects.

WaveLengths - You mentioned your use of Solidworks and Mastercam, which I know are high end computer design programs. Suppose someone who wanted to use the Fab Lab only has experience with something like Autodesk 123D Design, which is a popular entry level CAD program?

Dean Akhavi – That would probably be fine. We don’t feel that we need to re-teach someone who already knows the basics.

David Smith – It is interesting that you mentioned the free Autodesk program. I have already installed Autodesk 123D Design on these computers as part of a community education class on 3D printing. That way, someone who isn’t a regular student here can download the free software and continue to use it at home. One reason we like students to learn the professional programs is because they have become industry standards and have a broader range of capabilities. For example, Solidworks is a 3D modeling program that can be used in conjunction with Mastercam to provide the tool paths necessary for CNC machining.

WaveLengths - How can other communities go about establishing a Fab Lab?

Dean Akhavi – Our Fab Lab is based on the model that was developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has been embraced by many Fab Labs around the world. We are the first college in New York State that has a MIT-associated Fab Lab. A Fab Lab can join the MIT consortium by meeting the basic requirements of their charter, which is fairly simple to do.

As explained on their website, MIT Fab Lab requirements include assembling enough of the hardware and software inventory to be able to share people and projects with other fab labs, posting the Fab Charter, and then formally requesting that they be added to the MIT Fab Lab network.

A community can also establish a Fab Lab independent from MIT and run it anyway they wish. However, being a member of the MIT organization has advantages. They have experience and provide guidelines for establishing and managing a Fab Lab. They also have a large membership base, which facilitates collaborative projects with Fab Labs around the world.

Initially, our Fab Lab will focus on collaboration among area businesses, schools and colleges. We want local people to come to our Fab Lab to share their experience and knowledge, and to benefit from all the resources that we have gathered here.

WaveLengths - The U.S. was once a leading manufacturer. Can we get that back?

Dean Akhavi - Yes, but I think it needs a reversal in terms of thinking among our business leaders and elected officials. Our strength as a nation has always been our manufacturing ability. When manufacturing went off shore and we became a service economy, the business community didn’t seem to care all that much. Corporations and investors were still making money selling and trading goods manufactured by other countries, and any manufacturing we needed could be done more cheaply in other countries.

However, there is a ray of hope. The current interest in Fab Labs and the emphasis on STEM education suggests that we may be changing our thinking in this country. There seems to be renewed interest in brining innovation, manufacturing and jobs back to the U.S.