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How TechShop And Fab Labs Enable The Maker Revolution

By Ideas Lab Staff June 26, 2013

Workshop facilities have emerged over the past several years to help amateur manufacturers bring their ideas to life.

It’s the classic quandary: You have an idea for a new product or invention – just no way to actually create it. But now, would-be inventors can take their ideas from paper to prototype with the help of workshops and labs that give them access to advanced equipment and resources.

TechShop, a facility based in California, and MIT’s Fab Labs are two such services growing with the nation’s “maker” movement, which the Wall Street Journal describes as a “subculture of do-it-yourselfers who make everything from drone plans to sculptures.”

Credit: Maciej Wojnicki, Flickr

Take the Nifty MiniDrive, for example. This device, which allows anyone to increase the storage space of their MacBook computer by inserting the drive into the SD card slot, was developed at the Fab Lab Manchester, the first of such labs in the United Kingdom. The lab’s 3D printers allowed the MiniDrive’s creators to design their first prototype. According to the Fab Lab Manchester site, Piers Ridyard thought up the idea almost overnight and turned to Fab Lab for help with testing its feasibility. The product will hit retail shelves this year.

Fab Labs exist in about 40 U.S. communities and 100 other countries, from Boston to rural India. A fab lab – short for “fabrication laboratory” – is a package of tools designed to make almost any object, an idea from Professor Neil Gershenfeld, who developed the initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “Give ordinary people the right tools, and they will design and build the most extraordinary things” – that’s the mission behind the project.

Each lab’s core capabilities include a computer-controlled lasercutter for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts, a signcutter, milling machines and programming tools. Participation requirements and activities vary by lab, but all provide users the benefits of access to equipment and other resources they might not have elsewhere.

Lab user Todd Blatt, for example, founded Custom 3D Stuff and has made a living out of creating custom-made manufactured items. “They have machines here that I could never afford on my own because of the expense,” he told MDBIZ News, a publication of Maryland’s economic development department.

Fab Labs are starting to make their way into universities and public libraries, too. Indiana University has applied for grants to cover the cost of high-end equipment such as 3D printers. And the Community College of Baltimore County’s small workshop, which opened in 2011, has been a successful facility for makers of prototypes for hair clips, an adjustable curtain system and a camera lens cap holder.

“People can bring their ideas here, without a lot of capital and without a lot of effort on their part, and get connected with some of the tools to make their ideas a reality, and maybe turn those ideas into a business,” Jeff Fuchs, chairman of The Maryland Advisory Commission on Manufacturing Competitiveness, said in the MDBIZ News article.

TechShop, based in Menlo Park, Calif., describes itself as a “playground for creativity.” The program offers more than $1 million worth of professional tools and software at each of its facilities. Participants benefit from staff members’ expertise and classes ranging from wood shop to laser cutting for beginners. Others use TechShop for its high-end, professional equipment.

Max Gunawan, creator of Lumio, a modern lamp in the form of a hardcover book, produced his product at a TechShop in San Francisco. According to a Wall Street Journal article, Gunawan was able to save thousands of dollars by having access to laser cutters in the shop. “At TechShop, he had access to several of them – along with more than a million dollars’ worth of wood cutters, metal punchers, 3D printers, design software and other equipment – for a membership fee of about $125 per month,” the article states.

Highly successful products – the credit card processor called Square and the DODOcase iPad covers – also were produced in some variations with the help of TechShop.

TechShop’s memberships vary in price and type and include student and family packages in addition to individual passes. The shops exist in six cities and have attracted thousands of members. TechShop also provides a free one-year membership plus $350 for training classes for veterans, an initiative developed in partnership with the Veterans Administration, according to Make magazine.