“Function” is the community application and content of the fab lab. We’ve found that the fab lab needs to reflect the interests and needs of the community that hosts it. So each fab lab is different, based on the community where it resides Below are descriptions of 4 very different fab labs and how they function. These labs all try to balance financial sustainability with community needs and challenges.
1. Soshanguve Fab Lab.
This fab lab is in a township in South Africa, just outside of Pretoria and is entirely about the community,and the social engineering around the community. During a visit several years ago to the township, we accidentally ran across a small community health center with a printing/resume service attached to it. It was run by a group of local youth called the Bright Youth Council, a team of young adults from the community who invested the time and fundraising capacity to build the Health Center. This amazing team provides both champions and gurus for the fab lab there. The print shop next door continues to provide printing and resume services (small commercial enterprise), but has now dedicated most of its computers to teaching children, teens, and adults to use computers and to design on computers. This is in essence the design center. Once users have designed something that they want to fabricate, they walk next door to the fab lab, where a small team of technical gurus helps them learn the machines, the electronics and the fabrication processes and workflows. This lab has recently expanded their services to assist users in prototyping for small business startup ideas. The startup prototyping is organized as fee-for-service, as yet unproved, but the demand for this kind of help, service and education is large in the township. This fab lab also plans to use the digital fabrication distributed education program Fab Academy, as an income stream to help sustain the fab lab operations. Fab Sosh currently get its funding from the CSIR/DST (government) and from large manufacturing companies with facilities nearby that are interested in workforce development and in corporate social responsibility.
2. Utrect Fab Lab: Protospace
This fab lab, located in Utrecht, the Netherlands, is based around small businesses and entrepreneurial activities. It is a prototyping facility with a social mission as well. Protospace has 2 full time designer/fabricators on staff, one full time IT person, a full time administrator, plus a part time business manager/fundrasier. 4 days a week Protospace provides professional design and fabrication services for small businesses for a fee, A few days a week Protospace is open to the community for free access to the fab lab. Protospace is about 50% self sustaining.
3. University of Nairobi Science and Technology Park Fab Lab
This lab is about 3 years old and is the first fab lab to be integrated into a business incubator environment. It is situated on the University campus, but not associated with any one department, rather with the new Science and Technology Park initiative coming out of the government. The users are local inventors and entrepreneurs as well as recent University graduates from engineering. The fab lab is a terrific resource for the inventors and students to work on prototypes and ideas, and as importantly, to improve upon ideas already in process. This lab has about 8-10 small business ideas incubating. While only a few ideas originated in the fab lab, all of the inventors are improving their designs in the fab lab. The fab lab is also being used to train non-university people in advanced technical skills through Fab Academy. This lab is successful enough that the government wants to invest in a network of fab labs in this same context throughout Kenya. An interesting aspect of this lab is the relationship with the government, which backs the lab so far as to consider policy changes and supports to help it succeed, including import tariffs to protect businesses incubating out of the fab lab there. This lab is so far, entirely government funded, with plans to have the incubator take over financial support in the future.
4. MC2STEM High School Fab Lab
This is a formal education fab lab for high school students. Educators have put a full fab lab in the center of the specially designed STEM school and trained faculty in the skills to run the machines and design tools. In turn faculty and the principal have designed curriculum that incorporates the fab lab tools and processes in every discipline taught at the school (math, science, literature, English, history, technology, engineering, foreign languages). They have designed 10 capstone modules (each module is 10 weeks in duration) that address different overall concepts, and each subject takes both the content and fabrication skills into consideration in teaching the module. For example Electric Light is one capstone. Students design projects around the history of light, the use of light, the speed of light, the cultural uses of light, the technology and science of light, etc. This fab lab is co-located on a corporate campus (GE Lighting Company) such that GE engineers can come and work in the lab and help mentor students through projects, and through design, engineering and fabrication processes. In turn the students can apprentice and/or experience a real engineering environment and work with great professional role models for careers in science, engineering and technology. This is a public-private partnership between the GE Electric Company, the Cleveland public school system, with support from private investors.