In Neil Gershenfeld’s book “Fab” Mel King plays a pivotal role in the emergence of the Fab Lab movement. Mel has a fascinating history which I won’t go into, best read the book, but these days he is the figure head of the South End Technology Centre (SETC) in Boston. It is home to the worlds first Fab Lab a digital fabrication lab providing laser cutters, 3d printers, CNC routers and access to 3d modelling software.
The centre was originally set up by Mel in order to provide access to digital technology for Boston’s underprivileged and marginalised communities. The Fab Lab has continued that tradition providing the means, particularly for children and teenagers, to engage with technology that normally would not be accessible. In their own words the lab allows them to:
“Recruit and train persons in computer technology who have been excluded from the technological revolution and are at an increased risk of joblessness. Encourage community residents to use information technology as a means of personal and professional development. Help residents move from being consumers of information to producers and creators of knowledge.” 1
The area of South End in Boston is a socially, culturally and economically diverse neighbourhood with noticeable inequality on the streets. The centre provides a location for the local community to connect by dropping in or organised events, with only the cost of materials needing to be covered.
Fab Labs are not for profit, so they have to generally utilise whatever space is offered and get efficient with it, the SETC Fab Lab is the embodiment of this approach. Crammed into approximately 4mx4m space they manage to fit in all the equipment above (2 epilogue laser cutters, Roland Vinyl cutter, 8 macs (running Mac OS, Windows and the open source Linux Ubuntu), Modela CNC router for creating circuit boards, an UP and Makerbot 3d printer and a space devoted to electronic prototyping. The most surprising tool they have is an enormous Shop Bot CNC router that is hidden behind heavy duty plastic drapes.
The Fab Lab Foundation, which emerged out of the rapid growth of fab labs globally, provides the infrastructure and information from which to start a Fab Lab anywhere and is open to anyone to access2. On the day of my visit I encountered Jean-Luc Pierite, the logistics and communications manager at the Fab Foundation, participating in a Fab Academy web cast that regularly stream globally. The Fab Academy is the distributed education model of Neil Gershenfeld’s MIT class “How to Make (Almost) Anything”, and is directed by Neil himself. The live online video lectures and discussions, as well as digital content provides advanced digital fabrication instruction through hands on projects and access to technological tools and resources through Fab Labs.
The Fab Lab space itself is very cramped, but fully functioning as a flexible digital fabrication workshop. This Fab Lab is almost 10 years old now so it can be forgiven for looking well used. All around the space small objects offer insights into projects that have taken place in that time, from laser cut glasses to 3d printed key holders. Storage is essential and squeezed into every available space, to the extent that chairs are stacked under desks and projector screens are hidden away in anticipation of the space transforming into a compact teaching room.
Jean-Lux was very kind in showing me around the facilities and explained how all the equipment integrated into a learning experience, moving from digital 3d design through to subtractive or additive fabrication and then communication. The academy course is not free so it is expected that knowledge is shared within fab labs by those lucky enough to be enrolled. This distribution of skills and peer to peer teaching is vital to the growth of fab labs and generally those running the fab labs themselves are the ones to graduate from the course.
For Mel and Dr Susan Klimczak, South End’s Education programme organiser, peer to peer is the key to a successful and sustainable community around making. At the SETC young adults are recruited during their summer break to learn about creative technology and then teach out into the community. The programme uses interaction with technology as a source of individual expression and a technique through which to construct and communicate personal narratives.
The mentor programme has been so successful that is has spread to established programmes at local Maddison Park and McKinley schools. Recently McKinley built its own in house Fab Lab, while Maddison Park benefits from MIT’s mobile Fab Lab. This converted truck carries a CNC router, laser cutter, hammers, saws and an inventory of parts with which to build and visits schools and community centres within Boston to try and inspire youth through making.