I was at the Fab Lab in London a few days back to get a closer look at 3D printing, laser cutting and well, as I found out at digital fabrication in general!
As we arrived we were welcomed by Tony Fish, Susana, Heman and Nealesh to be given a tour of the Fab Lab and get a feeling of what digital fabrication is really about.
Susana, Herman and Nealesh are interns at the FabLab and they are themselves skilled makers with a very nice project crowd funding as I am writing. The project is called Pegged-In and their website is a must see as it is a piece of art in itself.
Tony suggests that we are at a turning point with regards to technology and that the digital world should now turn its attention to moving from pure ether to the physical world. Something, he says, that can be achieved by new technologies like 3D printing and laser cutting but mostly by a community which is more than ever detaching from the sole role of being consumers to become owners and manufacturers of their own ideas.
Ideas which are also worth spreading in a manner that takes a lot of the open source ethos.
The FabLab London opened a year ago in what had been one of the hottest day in a long while, on the day we were visiting it was a rather chilling January morning just a few degrees above zero. The lab was anyway a warm place, full of energy and people buzzing about doing the most disparate things form modelling, to design, coding, meeting with others, crafting, you could enter the FabLab with an idea and get out with an actual product in your hands! Yes because the Fab Lab is not just a furnace of ideas but mostly a very practical, pragmatic place where ideas become reality.
The two main services the lab offers are in fact the digital fabrication and the rapid prototyping whereby the lab staff will help you refine your project and create a usable prototype of it.
The session was mostly aiming to be an informative one to bring awareness and get a little flavour of what this new revolutionary approach to "making" is about. It was mostly addressed to journalists so that when they would write on the subject of digital fabrication they would be more knowledgeable about it. I was obviously an intruder.
The approach of the session was then intended to be more pragmatic than simply a tour of the lab so that we could have ended up making something in the end. That;s what hands-on is all about!
The FabLab comes out of MIT and there is now more than 600 around the world. It was started on questions like: "How do we make sure that a product can be replicated exactly every time, the millionth one equal to the first?"
This lab opened September last year and is already counting 10K people that went through the lab showing how successful the idea has proven.
The first rule of FabLab is: learn, make, share. This applies to everything from coding to electronics, from crafting to sewing.
Making lets you realise how difficult and valuable manufacturing, designing and developing a product is and also how new skill sets are needed to foster and sustain this new movement.
People in the FabLab come from several backgrounds and this is what makes the place such a resourceful environment. One of the intern for example comes from a designer background he is a product designer, another is a physic, others have electronics engineering background and so on.
As Tony was finishing his welcome speech he showed us the cannon ball that Martina had skilfully transformed into a piece of art by creating little magnet boats and an elegant stand.
After the introduction we moved immediately in the area where the 3D printers were busy working, buzzing about and depositing material layer after layer.
The 3D printers are essentially made of a table that moves vertically up and down and a nozzle that squirts heated plastic onto the table. The nozzle moves along X and Z coordinates via two stepper motors and deposits the plastic on the table with extreme precision.
The plastic is heated at 220 degrees and the filament is pushed through the nozzle by cogs in a mechanism at the back of the printer which steadily moves it through the nozzle for it to melt it.
A good enough printer would cost in the range of £1700 allowing for products which are rendered with a very good quality. But there are printers for all sorts of budgets starting at as little as £200/£300. A filament costs around £20 for 750g reel.
The quality depends on how precisely the objects are created in much like the same way as you would measure video cards or traditional printers resolutions. The smaller is the detail that you can render the better is the resolution of the 3D printer.
The initial set-up of a printer, especially for the not so expensive ones, can be rather tricky and although a set-up software will guide through the process, it might require some time to get through the whole thing. Getting used to your printer will help you over time to spot problems with the tuning and quickly put the printer back in check.
The table will need to be perfectly levelled, the corners to which the nozzle will move to will have to be precisely identified, the distance of the nozzle from the table will have to be perfectly set and other settings will have to be adjusted from software for every object created. A bit more work then you would need to do than with your normal printer I guess but you are printing in 3D!
More expensive printers will come with a set of sensors which allow for the printer to auto-calibrate but that increases the cost quite substantially.
The majority of printers will only use one colour of material but there are already some that can handle two different types of filaments.
With regards to the materials used the filament can be made of reusable PLA a fantastic things which is also great for the environment.and that allows for discarded materials to be reduced back into pellets and reeled as filament once again.
At the FabLab they had bought a new tool just for that.
The most common filament is the PLA but there other types depending on the design requirements. Some come with conductive material, some are photoelectric, you can have wood like, glass, metal; the sky is the limit
Even when it comes down to the printer itself the choices are many. Some printers can be build by laser cut material like wood or acrylic, some like the RepRap can reproduce itself!
This is the one on which we practised our skills or should I say lack of thereof :)
Next we were in ore of the laser cutter where we met Helen that was cutting cardboard for a box she was preparing for an Arduino based kit targeted to schools for STEM. I was later able to see the finished product at Bett Show 2016.
The principle of the laser cutter is very similar in this case to the traditional pen plotters (if you are old enough to have seen one) except that instead of using a pen this cutter fires a laser on the material underneath. The power of the laser, the speed and the frequency of the pulses can be adjusted in order to work on different materials. Too much power and you are burning the material too much. too little and you won't cut it. Changing the parameter also allows for the laser to work as an engraver and instead of going completely through the material it will only "scar" it to a chosen depth.
Having a laser cutter is not only expensive because of the cost of the cutter itself but also for the space it takes and for the infrastructure that goes with it like the extractor fan for the fumes. Not something you could easily have at home!
At the FabLab there is also a well set-up electronics lab full of components and tools which can accommodate the majority of your needs.
Next to it there is a workshop for mechanical works complete with a lathe where we found somebody making parts for a clarinet! When I said you can anything at the FabLab I actually meant it.
Passing in front at the spaces that can be used for work groups to come together and develop ideas, we eventually got in the last section of the FabLab.
At the end of a narrow corridor we found Martin and the lab manager Frank busy at work with computer programmable sewing machines. By using conductive thread they were getting ready for a workshop to be given to 25 French teachers which on their way to the Bett Show 2016 also wanted to visit the FabLab to gain some insight in digital fabrication. The kit was not ready but we could already see from the sketches on the white board and the prototypes being worked that it would have become the basis for a rather interesting workshop on wearable technologies.
That concluded our little tour of the lab and off we went to practice on the 3D printers.
After being given a bunch of laptops we were instructed to visit the website Thingiverse where anybody can go and find a design for something that would be later fed to the 3D printer.
The printers in fact have an SD card reader and through a display you are given the possibility to choose the design on that card that you want executed.
Some parameters needs to be set on the downloaded design like whether you want to print a draft or an accurate reproduction of the object. This is done through a modelling tool and once saved the file is ready for the printer. Depending on the parameters chosen you are also advised of the time it will take to print the object so that's when it is very important that you understand the implications of your parameters e.g. draft or quality will change the time dramatically.
In the end I managed to get away from the lab with just a small keyring but what counts more with a much better understanding of what digital fabrication is about and of the many opportunities it is starting to offer.
The lab is opened free of charge on Fridays for the public and during the week you can use it at a cost.
So what are you waiting for? Visit the FabLab closer to you and get ready to learn, make and share.