FabLab ethos puts community first

New facility encourages creativity, technology and social inclusion

The FabLab model uses technology to encourage peace-building and reconciliation in Derry and Belfast and a number of new businesses have been borne out of it or assisted by FabLabNI.  Photograph: Javier Burón

The FabLab model uses technology to encourage peace-building and reconciliation in Derry and Belfast and a number of new businesses have been borne out of it or assisted by FabLabNI. Photograph: Javier Burón

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Who would have thought 3D printing could become a tool for peace and reconciliation? Is there nothing it can’t do? The technology, along with its bedfellows – laser cutters and CNC milling machines – are the foundations for new approaches to social inclusion.

There are two FabLabs (fabrication laboratories) in Northern Ireland – in Derry city and New Lodge in north Belfast – but there are more than 200 across the world.

“Our model within the wider FabLab network bridges social, business, educational and artistic usage of digital fabrication and technologies such as 3D printing, laser cutting, etc,” explains John Peto of FabLabNI.

“We are funded by the European Union Peace Programme who look for such initiatives to create the greatest possible impact in terms of reconciliation and peace building.”

The original idea grew out of the Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT, and the vision of Prof Neil Gerschenfeld. By avoiding the traditional academic and university routes for access to such technology, FabLab is an attempt to see how disadvantaged communities could be served and empowered by technology. Each of the 200 or so FabLabs within the official global network, takes on the culture of the organisation that houses it.

John Peto is director Of Education at arts outfit The Nerve Centre in Derry, which now houses the city’s FabLab. “We were already coming from an artistic, creative standpoint, so we still encourage that type of innovation,” says Peto.

“Everybody designs and makes something they can go home with – a piece of music, an app, a piece of furniture, a small solar-powered watering system etc. Participants learn physical design skills, the materials needed, the costs, as well as a whole range of soft skills.”

Open source

Where it differs from commercial maker spaces, is that what you make is open source.

So if you compose a song, design a bench for a park, or build a radio, then your design gets shared on an open network, where others looking for a radio design, can use your blueprint and adjust it to fit their purpose.

The model is really kicking off up north. “At present we have two of the busiest FabLabs – in terms of user numbers – in the world. In each centre we deliver to over 100 people a week.”

And it’s not just for the sake of community inclusion.

A number of new businesses have been borne out of or assisted by FabLabNI, including a souvenir-building enterprise based around Derry’s City of Culture status in 2013, and a robotic home-brewing system.

Their initial capital costs came to about €35,000 to get FabLabNI off the ground. But it can be done for much less, as has been shown in the University of Limerick School of Architecture.

“We set up a UL FabLab in 2012,” says Javier Burón, director of FabLab Limerick, School of Architecture, UL. “In one of my elective modules, we started to build our own 3d printers, laser cutters, CNCs etc.

“The School of Architecture has this selective programme, for fourth and fifth year full-time students to work on small courses. It allows them to try a lot of innovative approaches. Modules based around low-energy construction, fabrication, and even more theoretical ones about utopia. I had experience in building digital fabrication equipment and asked our head of school to buy some parts so that our students could make their own laser cutter and 3D printer. Digital fabrication is very good from an educational perspective as it connects the physical world with technology.”

Lower cost

The UL approach allowed them to create the tools necessary for a basic FabLab at a much lower cost. “Because we are based on open source designs we have spent less than €18,000 in all.” In order to better engage with the City of Limerick (as well as needing space to house all the newly built equipment), the UL FabLab moved off campus to a new premises on Rutland St in the city centre.

“We were thinking about how to reconnect digital fabrication technology with the younger generation in Limerick, and so started talking to the city council,” he says. “As part of the Creative Limerick Scheme, to put creative businesses into empty spaces, the council offered us a building so that we could put our equipment, know-how and people into the city.”

Other than the WeCreate space in Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Tipperary, TOG in Dublin, and a couple of other small outfits, the rest of the country is lacking in FabLab facilities now proving popular elsewhere. John Peto of FabLabNI would like to change that.

“We’d be keen to forge a relationship with the soon to be opened TechShop in Dublin and perhaps share our skills in terms of outreach, social intervention and mental health programmes,” he says. “I think FabLabs could be beneficial across the island.”

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