What are Fab labs?
Fab labs are a technical prototyping platform, where people can design and build their own technology. Fab labs or Fabrication Laboratories began as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) headed by Neil Gershenfeld.
Fab labs are designed in a way that people with minimal training can come and work on developing their own technology for personal or commercial use. They comprise of roughly fifty thousand dollars in equipment and materials that can be used to make almost anything. They share core capabilities so that people and projects can be shared across them. This currently includes:
- A computer-controlled laser cutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts
- A larger (4’x8′) numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house) sized parts
- A sign cutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
- A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surface-mount circuit boards
- Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors
This inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a fab lab being able to make a fab lab. The Fab Lab comprises of off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools wrapped in open source software and programmes written by researchers at the MIT.
More than just a prototyping platform, a Fab Lab connects to a global community of learners, educators, technologists, researchers, makers, and innovators – a knowledge sharing network that spans 30 countries and 24 time zones.
And because all Fab Labs share common tools and processes, the programme is building a global network, a distributed laboratory for research and innovation.
“There has been a digital revolution in communication. Now it is time for a digital revolution in fabrication, where data is turned into products,” — Neil Gershenfeld
Usually, entrepreneurs and innovators will have to go to several facilities to produce different parts of their products, like circuit boards, and packaging etc. Fab Labs are designed to provide these facilities in a single place. Thus it enables an entrepreneur to develop a prototype of the actual product and display it to the market and to other stakeholders.
Kerala Startup mission and MIT Fab labs
On June 16, 2015, Neil Greshenfeld, Director of Centre for Bits and Atoms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), arrived in Thiruvananthapuram and met with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to discuss the details of two Fab Labs being set up in the State.
The Fab lab programme involves setting up state-of-the-art Fabrication laboratories in the state to encourage startups in the technology sector.
With the support of Government of Kerala, Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) has started two MIT Electronics Fabrication labs each at Technopark, Trivandrum and Kerala Technology Innovation Zone (KTIZ), Kochi. The Fab lab in Technopark, Trivandrum is established inside the campus of Indian Institute of Technology and Management- Kerala (IIITM-K).
Fab Lab Trivandrum
It is located in the IITMK campus inside Technopark. Technopark has all the infrastructure for making software based innovation, this is a much-needed addition. Fablabs adds Rapid Hardware Prototyping facilities, which will enable more startups to explore technology-based innovations.
Hardware Prototyping Capabilities of Fab lab Trivandrum
Computer controlled Machines
Trotec Speedy 100 (Laser Cutting/Engraving)
In our lab, we have a 60w carbon dioxide laser capable of cutting Cardboard, Wood, Acrylic etc. This is a precise machine which is very versatile. You can make a multitude of different structures from engraving your photo or logo on wood, to cutting out press fit assemblies which can be put together to form 3D structures. The process is very quick, and the software is easy to use. All you need is a vector image of the item you want to engrave or cut. You can load it to any vector based software like Inkscape, Illustrator and print it out. The laser works on the basis of colour, we can set some predefined colours on the software and define power and speed settings for it so that we can either engrave or cut depending on the colour we set. In our lab, we set the Red to cut and Black to engrave.
Shopbot Large Scale CNC Mill (Wood Carving/Cutting)
We have the industry standard Shopbot Large scale CNC Mill, which you can find in any fab lab across the globe. This is a pretty cool machine and because of its large format, it can be used to make anything from 3D carving of wood to Press fit furniture and even an entire house. The functioning is like the laser cutter and It needs a DXF file format which contains the path you want the tool to follow.
High Resolution Mini NC Mill: Modela (PCB production)
Modella is used for milling Printed Circuit Boards (PCB). This is a high precision machine with micron resolution. It can mill out a single-sided board. It takes its input from a PNG image of the circuit traces and the software turns them into tool paths for the bit to follow.
Vinyl Plotter (Flexible Circuits, Vinyl signs, Vinyl Masks)
We have a Roland MDX 20 Desktop Vinyl Plotter. It is a simple, yet versatile machine. It has a knife which is moved across a sheet of Vinyl to cut it. The Input to this machine comes from a PNG image file. This can be your Company logo, PCB design, Silkscreen mask. The software converts the image into tool paths and the machine will cut out the vinyl.
Dimension and Ultimaker 2 (3D Printing)
We have two 3D printers in our lab, Dimension, and Ultimaker2. Dimension is a very high-end 3D printer capable of Printing ABS plastic. It can 3D print complex part assemblies because of the way it handles support material. That means you can 3D print a working Gearbox assembly for your product in one go. The Ultimaker2 is a much more Hobby grade 3D printer. Suitable for prototyping sample designs. It has good dimensional accuracy and very goos print quality. For 3D printing, you need an STL file of your 3D part.
We use the Vulcan Furnace for Melting and Casting Metal. We make silicon molds using any other manufacturing method and then melt the metal in the furnace and pour it into the mold.
Sand Blaster (Engraving plastic, Removing Paint)
A sand blaster is a machine which shoots sand at high velocity inside a chamber. This can be used to remove paint and even etch plastic components. It is connected to a compressor which provides the high-pressure air to the system.
Electronics production Workbench
We have the facilities for making and testing your electronics boards. The equipment includes Soldering Stations, Electronics repositories, Oscilloscopes, Power supplies.
Bandsaws (Manual Cutting)
Fablab has all the Materials required for making your product from scratch.
Fablab is open to the public, anyone can book a machine and use it to make their product. For booking information please visit fablabkerala.in
The Fabacademy conducts a course on Digital fabrication every year. Many labs from across the world host this course and students from many countries participate in them. The Fab Academy is a fast-paced, hands-on learning experience where students plan and execute a new project each week. Each individual documents their progress for each project, resulting in a personal portfolio of technical accomplishments.
I joined the Fabacademy Course in January this year, we are the 13th batch of students in the fabacademy. My experience so far has been awesome. You get to learn a lot of stuff in such a short amount of time. Every week we are working on something new. The machines are awesome to work with and the assignments are challenging. This unlike any course I have gone through, The pace is fast, we have one week to learn about the software, hardware, and design and make our assignments. This course is challenging and the rewards are high. You can see my progress on my Fabacademy Archive page.