Anyone involved in building prototypes knows that one of the first orders of business is finding a place to work. Finding a place to work is generally not a problem for corporate engineers whose company provides lab space and equipment. However, makers and entrepreneurial engineers are on their own.
There are many types of makerspaces available such as labs, studios, hackerspaces, and workshops. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but their role is to make it possible for an engineer to build prototypes and models rapidly. The key differences between these spaces are who can use them, the cost involved in their use, and the types of training required to be in the space. For example, a studio geared towards designers might not include electrical engineering equipment like oscilloscopes or spectrum analyzers. A workshop is only available for use by trained machinists due to the complex machinery available for building.
Fab labs offer an attractive option for many engineers. A fab lab is a technical prototyping space that is driven by the maker movement and allows users to make “almost anything”. It’s a physical location with different types of prototyping tools that collaborators can use to play, create, and innovate. Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, originated the Fab Lab concept. After the success of the course “How To Make Almost Anything”, Gershenfeld realized the potential of creating a network of small workshops containing a collection of commercially available computer-driven fabrication machines that enable everyone to make “almost anything”.
Fab labs are located all over the world and generally live under a centralized organization known as the Fab Foundation. The website https://fablabs.io/ lists all of the potential fab lab locations. Fab labs are situated in educational institutes, incubators/accelerators, cities with an extensive entrepreneurial or maker movement, and even at corporate entities, although these typically have restricted access.
Most fab labs charge fees for the use of the space. However, an official fab lab should be open to the community for little or no cost. The Fab Charter states: “Fab labs are available as a community resource, offering open access for individuals as well as scheduled access for programs.” Gaining access to fab lab resources usually first requires training and orientation to the facility and its equipment. Once access is granted, most fab labs have operating hours during which members of the community can come to the facility and build things. These hours ensure that trained help and safety personnel are available while the fab lab is open.
Fab labs are typically well-equipped for building prototypes. The Fab Foundation sets equipment standards that fab labs must adhere to if they are to be accepted as part of the Fab Lab network. At a minimum, fab labs must have a set of core digital equipment and tools. The core digital equipment and tools include:
But often, depending on the location of the fab lab, there is guaranteed to be additional equipment tailored towards specific engineering disciplines. For example, a fab lab with a more electrical engineering focus will have a large quantity of soldering tools, debugging tools, and circuit board fabrication equipment.
That said, fab labs are not necessarily geared towards specific types of engineering projects. While electrical engineering projects can certainly be done at a fab lab, and some fab labs may be better equipped for these kinds of projects than others, fab labs are often best used as a space where you can take advantage of various types of prototyping equipment. This equipment would include things like 3D printers, milling machines, laser cutters, and tools used to fabricate physical prototypes.
Fab labs are excellent resources for electro-mechanical prototyping. While hackerspaces are more oriented to computing, fab labs are mainly about fabrication and building prototypes. Two main factors drive the popularity of fab labs for prototyping:
Having access to a community of innovators is a significant advantage of working in fab labs. The fab lab community often has expertise in electrical engineering projects as well as a broad spectrum of other engineering disciplines.
When looking for a specific fab lab as a place where you can do your prototyping work, see what equipment they have that will help you with your specific project, and see what kind of projects others are doing in that space. Also, keep in mind that fab labs have to conform to the minimum requirements of lab equipment for them to be considered part of the Fab Lab network. That sets them apart from other kinds of hardware and digital incubators, which do not have standards about lab facilities.
Fab labs represent just one kind of resource an entrepreneurial engineer can tap when he or she is ready to start building prototypes. They provide reliable access to equipment and workspace at a reasonable cost, with the added benefit of access to a community of engineering-minded people. When it comes to building prototypes, a good fab lab is the best place to start for many engineering projects.
Sal Amarasinghe is an electro-mechanical engineer who is passionate about building innovative products and services by integrating design, engineering and business. After graduating from the University of Waterloo in Canada, he spent 5 years helping companies like Apple and Microsoft design consumer electronics that you use every day. He joined MIT as a graduate student in product design to better understand the human centered design process. Sal is now a co-founder at Human Element, a design consulting firm, that helps large organizations design radical new products or services for humans using their patented Whole Human Design methodology.
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