Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab
Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab

Starting a Small Community Fab Lab

Many organizations like libraries, schools and museums are interested in setting up Fab Lab spaces but aren’t sure how to do this – especially if they do not have sufficient resources to deploy large-scale or specialized workshop facilities. The CU Community Fab Lab has pioneered a model based on the ideological and tool capacities of the main MIT network specification, but with several key differences.

Low Cost. The assemblage we suggest below requires less than $10,000 of equipment to implement, not including computers. Machines are more broadly available and cost less to replace or maintain.

Mobile. We emphasize tools that can be easily moved around between locations in regular-size vehicles so workshops and activities can be setup on a short-term and short-notice basis.

Scalable. Nearly every work area we have selected can easily be expanded at a low cost to include over a dozen simultaneous participants or more specialized forms of fabrication.

Education-Oriented. Rather than baffling participants by daring them to make anything they can imagine we prefer to focus on the meaning of making and the learning that happens through creation. Both process and product are important when guiding and channeling imagination. Often creativity can be actively encouraged by imposing constraints and inspiring learners with rewarding and relevant starter projects.

Community-Focus. While the MIT Fab Academy is an exemplary way to connect to other Fab Labs and learn powerful fabrication methods it doesn’t help organizations to understand the social, cultural and educational components of supporting a Fab Lab that serves audiences like youth and first-time makers.

Our guidance is based on six years of experience operating as a community fab lab and has expanded into numerous grants and implementations. It has been built with assistance from the Museum of Science and Industry Fab Lab in Chicago and Makerspace Urbana. We believe our model complements the MIT methodology and also supplies more structure and digital fabrication emphasis than similar Makerspace startup implementations. It is an easy pathway to more formal participation in the MIT Fab Lab network and tool system.

Philosophy and Overview

Watch the video below, or download the original presentation to skip around.

People, Spaces and Programming

Watch the video below, or download the original presentation to skip around.

Watch the video below, or download the original presentation to skip around.

Equipment List

Computers

Dell-e6430Most spaces of formal and informal technology education have a computer lab available for participants, so we didn’t include one in budget for the equipment list here. Desktops usually provide the best usability, power per dollar and last longer, but obviously cannot be moved easily. You will not need super powerful computers for most of the tools below but do avoid Chromebooks – computers with OSX or Windows 7/10 are a must if you plan to install drivers for tools. SSD’s are suggested as the most noticeable speed upgrade. Try to avoid computers with bottom-of-the-barrel budget processors like the Intel Atom, as these machines will not be able to effectively multi-task or handle complex vector graphics.
Cost: Computers, especially laptops, can be pretty expensive. One way to deal with this is to invest in durable used business equipment. For instance we’ve had good luck with Dell e6430 laptops (2012) with workstation nVidia graphics, which can be found on Ebay for just over $200.
Suggested Software: Take a look at our computer lab specifications to get an idea of powerful open source and professional propriety software – we think Inkscape is essential!
Materials/Parts: Having a disk-cloning station is very handy for making rapid updates possible; just update one computer and copy it to all of the others – then keep all of your important files on a cloud account or local server.
Alternatives:
Organizations with particularly savvy geeks may be able to use monitor-mounted Raspberry Pi‘s with Linux in place of more powerful machines, but these will not be able to drive tools. If you have extraordinary sums of money Apple iMacs are accessible, powerful and relatively easy to move around.

Silhouette Portrait Electronic Cutter

silhouette-portrait-reviewThe Silhouette Portrait is a small extra-ordinarily affordable, safe and durable cutting machine, kind of like a computer-controlled exacto blade. Of all of the equipment we’ve owned at the lab over the years we’ve never had one break. They can cut paper, adhesive vinyl, fabric and copper tape for circuits and are easy enough to use that even grade-school kids can work them. They help learners think about and work with basic graphic design and layout concepts such as layers and shape.
Cost: Typically around $130 on Amazon but can be found used on Ebay for less than $100.
Suggested Software: Silhouette Studio is free, and works well for most design needs. It is useful to have at least one copy of Silhouette Studio Designer Edition ($50) because it can directly import SVG (vector) files.
Materials/Parts: The real cost of the Silhouette is cutting mats ($10), which tend to be destroyed quickly by children who drop them on the floor or lose them. Blades will periodically need to be replaced ($10). We’ve had good luck purchasing matte adhesive vinyl in bulk from http://www.signwarehouse.com.
Alternatives:
There are many other kinds of electronic cutters – if you decide to go with another brand make sure the software supports importing of user-designed images and vector-format images! Comparable low-cost cutters usually do not. There is a larger version of the Portrait, known as the Cameo, that is nearly identically except that it is a little bit larger and supports longer cutting mats. It is equally reliable.

Brother SE400 Digital Embroidery and Sewing Machine

Brother SE400 HybridOne of the most exciting areas of digital manufacturing that we’ve encountered is e-textiles. Graphics can be designed on computers for all kinds of mediums, and fabric is no exception. The Brother SE400 is a convertible sewing machine that can also automatically embroider any supplied graphic into a 4×4 size frame. They are fairly simple to use, with a touch screen and good directions, and about as reliable as a typical sewing machine when operated properly. We like to tell participants that some of the first automated computational machines were actually punch-card driven looms, which were often operated by women (some of the first programmers!). The tool offers additional social benefits, too, such as introducing young audiences to crafts familiar to older learners, as well as challenging traditional subject content for the medium (i.e. embroidering the BB8 droid from Star Wars instead of a flower).
Cost: These machines can get pretty expensive, but go on sale with some frequency. Look for postings around $300, sometimes refurbished models can be found on Ebay for $275. We suggest avoiding used machines, as trouble-shooting complex mechanical problems that arise from unknown misuse is very difficult.
Suggested Software: There is no good FOSS software for digital embroidery that we’ve found. SophieSew allows you to manually trace images one node at a time or use existing stitch files. We think it’s best to make use of SewArt, which supports many stitch patterns, file types and simple editing tools, and can be purchased for 2 computers at $75. Beware that this program does not have support for volume licensing and management.
Materials/Parts: Felt and canvas make for good inexpensive materials to embroider without stabilizer for patches. Iron-on stabilizer can be helpful for work with clothing. Embroidery thread will look much nicer than regular thread, and a large spool of white can serve as material for winding bobbins. Eventually embroidery hoops will break and need to be replaced ($20 on Ebay), and needles snap on a fairly frequent basis. Make sure participants using the machine carefully use the button to lower and raise the needle for the auto-threader, we’ve observed the lever handle breaks off easily if thrust too hard. The warranty is a bit of a deception, as it can only be supported by certified repair agents, which in our state are four hours away and charge for shipping.
Alternatives:
This is really among the cheapest Embroidery machines on the market. We spent some time with older model initially, but it only supported a difficult computer-to-memory-card process and continually suffered from mechanical failures. The Brother PE770 work as a step up, as it is a very similar machine in terms of capability and process, but it features a 5×7 hoop size.

UP! Mini 3D Printer

The world of low-cost small-scale 3D printing has exploded in recent years, acting as a motivational curiosity for many new makers as well as impetus behind new easy 3D design software programs. While we see a great deal of value in the process of building your own 3D printer (ensures you know how to fix it!) as well as large-scale modifiable open source builds like the Lulzbot TAZ we’ve generally found it’s the tool most likely to break down and have problems. As such we’ve learned to reply on a model that is low-cost, makes excellent quality prints and support structure and, above all, is reliable and easy to maintain. The build profile for our chosen UP! Mini is only 4.5 cubic inches but it prints well with ABS plastic, which is tough like Legos. Typically our roadshow workshops and library activity sessions cannot last very long, so it makes a lot of sense to have a smaller printer, as you wouldn’t have the time or ability to leave the machine on all night printing something large. The enclosed chamber also helps to reduce hazardous particles from melting plastic and maintain a consistent heat level, preventing warping. The cell boards are a simple and relatively easy-to-maintain way of helping prints to stick to the surface, too.
Cost: Typically around $600 on Amazon or around $400 used on Ebay. We’ve had some luck using used machines because these printers are pretty simple and reliable.
Suggested Software: The UP! proprietary printing software is required for setting up prints and making minor modifications, such as resizing or stretching the height of a print. It automatically generates support structure and only gives you some minimal access to settings, which is nice because it keeps it from getting too complicated. Generally we introduce learners to making in 3D via scanning (see next item), geometric 3D design with TinkerCAD (free) and organic 3D design with Sculptris (free). Other software might include 123D Make (combine with a laser or electronic cutter), or for more advanced users SketchUp (free) or Blender (open source).
Materials/Parts: You’ll need to buy 1.75mm plastic filament as material for parts. These can be found for as little as $20 per 1kg roll all the way up to $50 or more for specialized biodegradable or extra-tough or flexible types. For us it’s been a bit of a mythology – some rolls of plastic work well, others don’t, it’s kind of a gamble and doesn’t seem to matter a great deal on supplier. We’ve also found that filament tangles are a frequent occurrence – probably the #1 cause of failed prints. The #2 cause of failed prints is a jammed extruder, which can be sometimes fixed by just backing the filament in and out, or by cleaning out the area on the motor and gear. We’ve also had some luck soaking jammed nozzles in acetone to help dissolve the plastic over time, but sometimes one will just so gummed up that you either need a torch or a replacement nozzle. This typically happens after hundreds of prints. They cost upwards of $80 from official suppliers but cheaper overseas versions with some assembly required can be found on Ebay for around $40.
Alternatives:
Our favorite large-scale open source powerful 3D printer is the Lulzbot TAZ. You can make these into dual-extruder machines or even do things like attach a small dremel or laser. They have a strong support community and continually offer paths for upgrading. Best of all they’re huge and make for a great spectacle at events. Unfortunately they’ve very complicated and take an expert to maintain regularly to stay working. They have some free software options like Cura, which often don’t generate quality support structure. With educational discount large TAZ printers can be acquired for around $2300. You will need to occasionally replace a broken glass bed ($80) and extruders ($90). The real cost is the person to provide regular maintenance, however.

Microsoft xBox Kinect 3D Scanner

By far and above the cheapest 3D scanner available, the xBox Kinect is an old but simple game device that can use special software and alternative drivers to make scans. The simple meshes they make are actually a benefit, because it means you don’t need a very powerful computer to work with the resulting file. Generally they do require a desktop or laptop with a discrete graphics card to run a smooth scan, however. The most appropriate way to use them is to capture scans of people-size objects or scenes. A person can spin slowly around in front of it to get a scan of about half of their body in the one cubic meter capture area.
Cost: Generally they’re available for around $25 on Ebay, plus a $8 USB power adapter.
Suggested Software: The non-commercial version of Reconstructme is now free, and does an excellent job. We’ve found that the old API version is a bit faster, but was not able to capture color – and the new version is able to work with recent versions of Windows and graphics cards/drivers. We suggest using the scanner in an environment without too many complicated objects in the background. Another similar-costing (but simpler workflow) software option is Skanect ($130). Once a scan is on your computer it can be cleaned up with the trial version of Netfabb, shearing off unnecessary parts and repairing holes.
Materials/Parts: We’ve had a couple of cheap power adapters die, but no Kinects themselves. Obviously you’ll need a 3D printer and filament to make prints.
Alternatives:
The Kinect 2 can be found on Ebay for around $60 and paired with a USB adapter for another $50. This version can capture significantly better scans using the Microsoft SDK (try Kinect Fusion WFP) but requires a very good computer. Going the other direction you can use photo-seaming methods with Autodesk 123D Catch to turn your cell phone into a kind of 3D scanner. This requires a lot of practice and more post-processing work, but can be a great way to get quality texture meshes.

Weller Soldering Station

[Description]
Cost: [Cost new and used]
Suggested Software: [FOSS/proprietary]
Materials/Parts: [upkeep parts and a source for a popular material]
Alternatives:
[larger or more specialized options]

Arduino Microcontroller, shields and sensors

[Description]
Cost: [Cost new and used]
Suggested Software: [FOSS/proprietary]
Materials/Parts: [upkeep parts and a source for a popular material]
Alternatives:
[larger or more specialized options]

Huion 10″ Graphic Drawing Tablet/h4>

[Description]
Cost: [Cost new and used]
Suggested Software: [FOSS/proprietary]
Materials/Parts: [upkeep parts and a source for a popular material]
Alternatives:
[larger or more specialized options]

(Optional) Laser Engraver

[Description]
Cost: [Cost new and used]
Suggested Software: [FOSS/proprietary]
Materials/Parts: [upkeep parts and a source for a popular material]
Alternatives:
[larger or more specialized options]

(Optional) CNC Milling Machine

[Description]
Cost: [Cost new and used]
Suggested Software: [FOSS/proprietary]
Materials/Parts: [upkeep parts and a source for a popular material]
Alternatives:
[larger or more specialized options]

Example Mini-Lab for $10,000

For the cost of a single MIT Fab Lab spec machine you can make a mini Fab Lab for a class of 10 learners. Obviously the balances could be changed, but remember it’s important to have a wide variety of tools to enable composite projects. For example, cutting out textiles production equipment would make it much harder to make wearable Internet of Things devices.

Tool#CostTotal
Silhouette Portrait Cutter + spare mats, blades, materials101801800
Brother Digital Embroidery + spare hoop, needles, materials103603600
xBox Kinect 3D scanner + powerful laptop1550550
Weller soldering station + spare tips, materials1060600
UP! Mini 3D printer + spare cell board, materials37502250
Arduino small electronics kits, materials1070700
Graphic drawing tablets1050500

Starter Curriculum

Preliminary Google Docs Curriculum Index (incomplete!).

Additional Resources