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Fab Labs: Incubators of the Future

Fab Labs are fully-equipped collaborative workshops where aspiring inventors can turn their ideas into reality. At the Fab Lab Conference in Toulouse, OWNI spoke with organisers and inventors about their projects, Fab Labs and the future.

by Sabine Blanc and Ophelia Noor On November 1, 2011

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Tomas Diez is director of the Fab Lab Barcelona project at the IAAC (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia). Their idea is to make Barcelona a Fab City, made up of an interconnected community of neighborhood fab labs.

How did the idea to set up a Fab City in Barcelona come about?

Barcelona today is the product of major events like the 1992 Olympics and the Universal Forum of Cultures in 2004. It’s a city built on events, guesswork, tourism and entertainment. Now individuals from the IAAC like Vincente Guallart, the former director of the IAAC and chief architect of Barcelona, and Antoni Vives, deputy mayor in charge of urban planning and information technology, have begun planning the future of Barcelona. Now we have the means to build Barcelona 5.0.

What specifically are the objectives of Barcelona 5.0?

We want to recapture the spirit of invention and production that’s been present in Barcelona throughout the centuries, but with the new tools and platforms that are fab labs. For example, in the last century the first experiment with electricity took place in Barcelona, on the Ramblas. The fab labs are the vectors of these new concepts. Right now we have two fab labs. One is in the Museum of Design which is being moved to the east of the city and another is in the old town. We are working on two more for the summer of 2012, a green fab lab in the northern outskirts of Barcelona and a second in the disadvantaged neighborhood of Ciutat Meridiana. It’s a challenge. We want to show that this model can transform production methods, as well as social bonds.

How will you go about setting the project up?

We’re going to create a foundation and we’re currently developing a brand – FabCity. We’re planning to combine both public and private sector funding to promote the project, which will be generating new economic revenue. In the medium term, our plan is to set up a fab lab in each neighborhood. Eventually they will be managed by the neighborhood’s residents. We’ll train them, and in turn they will train others. In a few months we’ll launch the first neighbourhood fab lab in Ciutat Meridiana. We’ll still have a research and education centre, but the goal is to produce meaningful devices and products for the local community; things like power generators, Internet points. All the money invested will go towards generating productivity and new economic models, people producing their devices, prototypes that can be sold to companies. At the same time the companies can use the fab labs to test prototypes.

And these devices will be free?

I don’t think that we need to go down the free route. Everything has its value, it might be time, or giving something in return. You use a machine to build your project and in return you build a website, or repair a computer for example. Paying an annual subscription might also be a solution. So for example, you design a piece of furniture and you create your start-up in order to market it. You can make use of the fab lab to create your prototypes and set up your production, and you pay a percentage to the fab lab. It’s very much a production studio by and for the community, and a project partner as well. We’re still figuring out how best to make the fab labs economically viable. It’s not easy, but we’re only getting started.

Hackers are already talking about the return to small inter-connected communities, and the fab labs seem to be part of the same trend. Is it a return to a local cooperative model?

When you’re on Facebook or YouTube, you think that you’re forming a community but that’s not the case. Here, you’re creating objects that will have local, social, environmental and societal applications. It’s clear were changing the model and returning to the local level, to producing useful things for the common good. We have all the tools we need to hand – 3D printers, laser cutting machines, the Internet. The fab labs represent an opportunity to connect all these tools together. We’re at a point now where we have powerful tools which allow us to create other tools. We need to take all of this seriously.

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Gaétan Séverac, Aymeric Barthes and Vincent Boucher, three computer science and robotics students, are developing a robot project that supports sustainable agriculture. Gaétan, who has no connection with the farming community, had the idea as he talked with farmers at a food festival in Pontonx sur l’Adour in 2010. They had mentioned the lack of available labor for carrying out certain tasks. Thanks to Artilect, the fab lab in Toulouse, the trio were able to develop their initial model.

Tell us about your concept.

Naïo Technologies are currently developing a small autonomous robot project, a companion for vegetable farmers that will help them with repetitive daily tasks, which cost both time and money. For now we’ve identified one application: weeding. It could also be used for maintenance, harvesting and crop monitoring. So for example, when to add pesticides, fertilizers, etc, targeting more accurately and avoiding waste by only treating the plots of land which need it. We want to bring agriculture and new technology together, whether its organic or intensive farming, without using the expensive machines that currently exist and are only profitable for large farms. We’re aiming for an intermediate product. Right now we import onions from China, our project would allows us to re-localise that.

How is it being received in the agricultural world?

They’re interested in the issue but skeptical about the technical feasibility. They see it as labor saving, that they can use it to make the most of their working hours and the management of their labor-force. But they want to see a prototype first. There’s also a distrust of the autonomous aspect, they like to stay in control.

What’s the next step, what obstacles will you have to overcome?

We’ve validated the proof of concept. Next we’ll produce a working prototype with the help of Icam, an engineering school in Toulouse. LAAS-CNRS, also in Toulouse, will help us with the autonomous movement and image analysis aspects. It should be ready for testing mid-2012 during the growing season.

One of our main problems is the autonomy in an open environment, the field, which we call hazard management. We also want to keep the cost of the technology down, so that the product remains accessible. We envisage it costing less than €20,000.

Are there any similar projects happening at the moment?

In the United States, one of the inventors of Roomba, the household cleaning robot, is working on similar agribots for transporting loads.

What do you make of the explosion of fab labs?

It’s great for filling in the gaps! At Artilect, we found some free expertise that enabled us to make our first project with no money.

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Markus Kayser made a name for himself with Solar Sinter, a beautiful 3D printing project involving sand. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he set up the Markus Kayser Studio in London where science, art and engineering come together, crossing disciplinary boundaries.

Tell us about your project.

The Solar Sinter is a project about abundance. It’s a free 3D printer that uses light and sand to make glass objects in the desert. The goal really is to show the potential of the idea. Whenever we speak of raw materials today we speak about scarcity; when we talk about energy, we mention all of the environmental problems. This is a project that allows people to dream, and that’s rare today.

So people are already interested in the project?

We’ve had incredible feedback on the Internet. Thousands of people saw the video on Vimeo. I certainly didn’t expect to see thesis papers being published already exploring the possible development of this technology on Mars or the Moon. A lot of people are writing to me to explain their ideas about the future of the project, where it could lead to. It’s captured people’s imagination and it’s important to me to keep developing it. People could take these ideas and make similar machines that combine technology and nature.

Could this technology be implemented in Africa?

We are still at a very experimental stage. The project needs further development to make it viable, and therefore we need money. For example, architects are very interested in developing the project on a large scale so that they could “print” buildings. In Italy Enrico Dini has already started to print large-scale structures. So to answer your question, the project could potentially help people through things like printing shelters. But it’s still too early to say. It really all depends on the funding!

You mentioned Enrico Dini, what are some other similar 3D printing projects?

In terms of 3D printing of architecture buildings, Enrico Dini is the one who’s gone the furthest. There are a lot of projects in existence, including at the University of Loughborough in England where they’re using concrete instead of sand. Dini uses sand but also an organic binding agent (a substance used in construction to bond together the other components of a material) that he invented.

What do you think about the development of the fab lab network around the world?

It’s a fantastic network. I’m not directly involved in it, but I use their free software a lot, things like Reprap and Makerbot. I’m hoping to collaborate more and more with them in the future.

Do you think we’re experiencing a revolution in how we produce things?

I think that’s what’s happening right now. It’s (3D printing) a technology which is becoming more efficient and which is starting to be produced, but it’s still a long way from mass production. I don’t know if it’s a good idea for everyone to have a 3D printer, but these technologies that allow us to reuse old objects or materials are developing every day. I hope Moore’s law will apply to this technology. I truly believe in it.


Photo Credit: Ophelia Noor for Owni /-)

Screen shots Markus Kayser, Solar Sinter Project, Flickr CC Paternité KevinLallier

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