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
To get a sense of how we’ve created and driven our Community Fab Lab watch the video below, or download the original presentation to skip around.
People and Spaces
Most 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 are a requirement 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 but used business equipment. For instance we’ve had good luck with adding solid state drives (SSD’s) to Dell e6430 laptops (2012) with workstation nVidia graphics, which can be found on Ebay for under $200. Our recent (2017) laptop lab is made up of refurbished Acer E5-575G laptops with 7th generation Core i5 processors and nVidia 940MX chips, purchased for under $500 each.
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
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 (loss of stickiness) or lose them. Blades will periodically need to be replaced ($8). 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 (like the Cricut!) 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 SE600 Digital Embroidery and Sewing Machine
Cost: These machines can get pretty expensive, but go on sale with some frequency. Look for postings around $340, sometimes refurbished models can be found on Ebay for less. We suggest avoiding used machines, as trouble-shooting complex mechanical problems that arise from unknown misuse is very difficult.
Suggested Software: There is no easy to use 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. Alternatively, PE-Design can be acquired through package deals from Brother and carries a number of powerful features exclusive to their machines.
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.
FlashForge Finder 3D Printer
Cost: Typically around $300 on Amazon.
Suggested Software: The FlashForge 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 great 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 MeshMixer (free). Other software for more advanced users might include Fusion 360 (free for students), 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. Don’t spend a ton of money on plastic, there’s honestly not that much difference between companies. We’ve also found that filament tangles are a frequent occurrence – probably the #1 machine-based (not user-error) cause of failed prints.
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. Recently UV Resin 3D printers have been dropping into an affordable price range (~$450), like the Anycubic Photon, which allow for very small models that might otherwise require too much support on a FDM printer. Since resin can be hazardous and requires a lot of cleanup supplies we recommend purchasing more expensive Wanhao water-washable resin. Make sure to do your research before buying one of these, they require substantial care!
Microsoft xBox Kinect 3D Scanner
Cost: Generally they’re available for around $20 on Ebay, plus a $8 USB power adapter.
Suggested Software: The best software option we’ve found is Skanect ($130), which has built-in repair and export utilities. We suggest using the scanner in an environment without too many complicated objects in the background. 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. Meshmixer also works well for modification and repair.
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. USB extension cables are helpful if you want to walk around a large subject (or group of people).
Alternatives: The iSense iPad mounted scanner is an easier alternative if you already have an iPad, and can be found on Ebay for under $200 and makes use of the free “Scanner” app on iOS. Don’t worry if it warns about calibration, it’ll still work fine. ItSeez3D is an excellent app alternative if you are willing to pay-per-scan. The Structure Core sensor is an update to the iSense (originally Structure) scanner, which is a little more pricey at $400 but very capable and does not require an iPad. Another direction you may choose to go would be to use photo-seaming methods with photogrammetry to turn your cell phone or tablet 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. Look into Scann3D or Trnio.
Arduino Microcontroller, shields and sensors
Cost: A standard official Arduino costs about $25, but since the design is open source there are R3 UNO off-brand alternatives that can cost around $8 on Ebay, or CH340-based chips that require an additional driver but cost only around $4.
Suggested Software: The Arduino software is free and open source and runs on all platforms. Most add-on boards have easily-available repositories as well.
Materials/Parts: Arduinos will require additional equipment to get started, including mini breadboards, jumper wires, alligator clips, battery or AC power adapters, LED’s, LCD displays, sensors of all kinds, motors or servos and a multi-meter.
Alternatives: Recently the Micro:bit and Circuit Playground Express have found major adoption by schools and makerspaces around the world. The weigh in at about $30 each, so they entail more startup cost, but they feature many built-in sensors and powerful connected block coding software. Other makers have found similar successes with more complicated small electronics platforms, such as Raspberry Pi or the Photon board. These systems have similar accessories and some of them are capable enough to act like full computers, running operating systems and broadcasting to discrete displays. Littlebits are an excellent (but highly-expensive!) alternative for younger (k-5) children.
Weller Soldering Station
Cost: The good old-fashioned WLC-100 stations can be found for around $40 each, which are durable and hot enough to be useful for many tasks. Don’t buy just the “wand only” type systems – having a sponge and a place to rest it is not just convenient but also safer.
Suggested Software: None, though circuit board design may require software.
Materials/Parts: Obviously you’ll need solder to actually connect electronics components, we suggest something that’s lightweight and split rosin/tin core. Soldering iron trips will need to be replaced on a regular basis, and it’s also helpful to have cleaner brushes, helping hands with magnification, and, importantly, small portable carbon filter exhaust systems to whisk hazardous fumes away. Flux might also be useful, depending on your application.
Alternatives: Bigger fully-featured soldering systems are of course available. Systems with attached heat guns can make it easier to desolder and deconstruct electronics, and some come with built-in power supplies, voltage testers or carbon filtration. There are also just tougher, hotter Wellers out there too.
Wacom Intuos Graphic Drawing Tablet
Cost: Wacom tablets have dropped in price over the past few years – they can be found for a reasonable $60-70 on Amazon and elsewhere.
Suggested Software: There’s a wide range of art software out there. Some of our favorites are Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and PaintTools SAI ($50) as well as open source options like Fire Alpaca and Gimp. Sadly Inkscape doesn’t seem to have good support for many tablets.
Materials/Parts: It’s very easy to lose a stylus (they look like pens) and they also sometimes break. Expect to buy some replacements, which are often $15 each or more.
Alternatives: Avoid the knock-off Turcom versions, they have very poor driver support. If you’re just using Adobe Illustrator or Autodesk Sketchbook on Windows they might work okay for you.
(Optional) Bigger CNC Equipment
Suggested Software: We’ve just outlined some preliminary software here. If you have the budget for it (or, in our case, a University license system) check out companies like Adobe and Autodesk, who offer a wide array of maker-based software.
Materials/Parts: It may go without mentioning but there are obviously many supporting components for the systems outlined above, including furniture like rolling tables and chairs, utilities like multi-power power strips or sinks and the ever-essential broadband internet to find and share innovations.
Example Library or School Mini-Lab for $10,000
For the cost of a single official MIT Fab Lab specification machine you can make a mini Fab Lab for a class of 10 simultaneous learners (more in groups). 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.
|Silhouette Portrait 2 Cutter + spare mats, blades, materials||10||180||1800|
|Brother Digital Embroidery + spare hoop, needles, materials||10||360||3600|
|xBox Kinect 3D scanner + powerful laptop + Skanect||1||700||700|
|Weller soldering station + spare tips, materials||10||60||600|
|Flashforge Finder + tools, materials||6||300||1800|
|Arduino small electronics kits, sensors, materials||10||80||800|
|Graphic drawing tablets||10||70||700|
|Total for everything||10,000|
Starter Programming and Curriculum
If you’re interested we have an older (2016) but still relevant guide for types of programming that might happen in a education-oriented Fab Lab.
Though the Fab Lab has many ground breaking sets of curriculum and prototyping techniques (see our summer camps!) our documentation isn’t organized enough to be presented online… yet. Most of our professional development and curriculum sharing occurs in-person and is custom-tailored to match the needs and standards of the teacher and classroom (or library) in question. For now, we have a preliminary Google Docs Curriculum Index for teachers as well as a gateway for tutorials and YouTube how-to’s. If you’d like some personalized help getting started just send us an email.