Working with a few graduate students and MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, Sherry Lassiter helped establish the world’s first FabLab in 2002. What started out as an exciting idea to give students the tools to make their own technological world has since flourished worldwide, leading to about 1,000 different labs in 87 countries and the Fab Foundation that connects them all together.
As the director of the Fab Foundation and the International Fab Lab program at MIT, Lassiter continues to play a crucial role in this global project, both managing the foundation and getting new FabLabs up and running. This year, Lassiter traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, to help set up the first FabLab in Central Africa, with a huge helping hand from Dassault Systèmes and SOLIDWORKS, who provided the site with both CAD software and the fabrication tools essential to a successful FabLab.
Lassiter spoke with ENGINEERING.com, during which time she spoke about her work with the ever-growing FabLab network, as well as the new FabLab Rwanda, which is already beginning to embark on some very exciting projects.
What Is a FabLab?
Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2001, Lassiter, Gershenfeld and his students were able to begin establishing Fab Labs around the world, using the funding to setup the first 12 or so sites, including Vigyan Ashram in India, the first FabLab outside of the United States.
Each site relies on a more or less basic setup package of digital fabrication technology, including such tools as 3D printers, CNC machines, numerically controlled mills and cutting machines, like laser and vinyl cutters. Along with some training and consumables, this equipment makes it possible for local members to begin manufacturing goods and inventing new technology.
While the FabLab network can provide plenty of resources and support, each FabLab is a local phenomenon, tailored to the needs of the community in which it is founded. For this reason, every FabLab has its own flavor and projects that can be entirely unique to the area.
The Fab Academy
To help train members, some FabLabs offer what is called the Fab Academy, a 20-week training course that gives students all of the tools necessary to design, manufacture and invent.
“We have a distributed network around the world that shares the same infrastructure,” Lassiter explained. “We’re able to leverage that not only for distributed business opportunities or entrepreneurship, but we’re also able to offer distributed advanced technical education.”
Key to this training is SOLIDWORKS, provided for free to the FabLab community. Students in the program are first able to learn to use the various programs in the SOLIDWORKS suite and then execute those skills for practical projects. For instance, throughout the course, class members are expected to build functional systems and prototypes, and they can create mechanical designs, analyze material properties and perform simulations within SOLIDWORKS, according to Lassiter.
“The Fab Academy students are future entrepreneurs,” Lassiter continued. “During the 20-week course, students learn how to design and make almost anything they can imagine—we’re talking about functional systems. To be able to use a tool like SOLIDWORKS in that process is really important, especially since we’re finding that, increasingly, more and more of our students are taking prototypes that they’ve worked on for the last 20 weeks and going to Indiegogo or Kickstarter to get them funded as businesses—as real products on the market.”
It’s no surprise that these students would be developing products for the commercial market. A lot of the work developed through the FabLab network may be small and useful locally, but some things that have started out as prototypes at FabLabs go onto become successful end products.
Take the Nifty MiniDrive, for instance, a memory device for Mac computers. Created by inventor Piers Ridyard, this small drive can expand a MacBook’s storage space by 50 percent. Ridyard first worked with FabLab Manchester in England to conduct feasibility testing and to produce prototypes. The product since grew to become a bestseller distributed worldwide. It is these sorts of possibilities that carried the FabLab concept and Lassiter to Kigali in 2016.
In June, Lassiter and the FabLab team at MIT helped to set up the first site in Central Africa. While the idea for the FabLab was developed by an IT incubator, kLab, the equipment to begin fabricating was donated by SOLIDWORKS.
“[FabLab Rwanda is] the first FabLab that SOLIDWORKS fully supported putting into a community with more than the design tools,” Lassiter said.“It also brought the physical tools to the FabLab. I think that demonstrates a real commitment to that community. It’s a beautiful and very enabling commitment to that community.”
Upon setting up the site, FabLab Rwanda has begun employing the tools for a variety of applications, such as sanitary products for women and smartfarming sensors to determine if crops need water.
The MIT team will be returning to the lab in January, 2017, where research students will be collaborating with FabLab Rwanda to prototype drones. With guidance from Jonathan Legard, founder of Afrotech, and assistance from the Global Humanitarian Lab, the group aims to set up a droneport that can leverage unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for medication delivery or crop dusting.
Because many populations in Rwanda live in remote settings that are extremely difficult to reach through traditional transportation, Legard conceived of the idea of using UAVs instead. These drones would be able to carry a load of 22 lbs up to 31 miles to deliver emergency cargo and medications. FabLab Rwanda and the MIT students will help bring this project to life by prototyping drone designs onsite.
The Future of FabLabs
The FabLab Rwanda project was just the first that received such significant material support from SOLIDWORKS, outside of software donations. Lassiter said, however, that it likely won’t be the last.
“We’re working with SOLIDWORKS on another potential FabLab in the Kingdom of Butan with a similar model,” Lassiter said.“It may be more community based, but still with innovation and education at heart. We’re just trying to work out the details now.”
Lassiter hopes that other corporations will follow suit in contributing to such humanitarian endeavors. “I see what SOLIDWORKS has done in Rwanda as the beginning of a trend that I’d love to see other corporations follow—really investing in the community over the long term,” Lassiter said. “It’s important to these communities, because they don’t have this kind of opportunity necessarily. It really contributes greatly to the future outcomes for many of the young people who are trying to innovate as well as the entrepreneurs who are trying to create businesses.”