What is a Fab Lab?
Fab Lab is the educational outreach component of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), an extension of its research into digital fabrication and computation. A Fab Lab is a technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, providing stimulus for local entrepreneurship. A Fab Lab is also a platform for learning and innovation: a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent. To be a Fab Lab means connecting to a global community of learners, educators, technologists, researchers, makers and innovators- -a knowledge sharing network that spans 30 countries and 24 time zones. Because all Fab Labs share common tools and processes, the program is building a global network, a distributed laboratory for research and invention. A Fab Lab is comprised of off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, wrapped in open source software and programs written by researchers at MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms. Currently Fab Labs include a laser cutter that makes 2D and 3D structures, a sign cutter that plots in copper to make antennas and flex circuits, a high-resolution NC milling machine that makes circuit boards and precision parts, a large wood router for building furniture and housing, and a suite of electronic components and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed microcontrollers for on-site rapid circuit prototyping. Originally designed for communities as prototyping platforms for local entrepreneurship, Fab Labs are increasingly being adopted by schools as platforms for project-based, hands-on STEM education. Users learn by designing and creating objects of personal interest or import. Empowered by the experience of making something themselves, they both learn and mentor each other, gaining deep knowledge about the machines, the materials, the design process, and the engineering that goes into invention and innovation. In educational settings, rather than relying on a fixed curriculum, learning happens in an authentic, engaging, personal context, one in which students go through a cycle of imagination, design, prototyping, reflection, and iteration as they find solutions to challenges or bring their ideas to life. As support for advanced technical education and to provide a training path for new fab lab managers, Fab Academy , an internationally distributed campus for technical education, has emerged from the Fab Lab program. The Fab Academy provides instruction and supervises investigation of mechanisms, applications, and implications of digital fabrication. In addition to Fab Academy, the network collaboration FabEd is being formed to provide support for formal education and resources for professional development for teachers and educators. The FabEd collaboration is a coordinated effort led by The Fab Foundation and TIES, the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, to build and support the movement of digital fabrication into formal education. We want to keep the magic and joy of what making and digital fabrication bring to the table and make that a part of learning. Fab Labs are closely aligned with MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms where research into next generation tools and software, as well as fabrication work flows and processes is pushing up against digital-analog boundaries. CBA is charting a research road map that traverses the frontier of digital fabrication: from machines in a Fab Lab that make things, to machines that make parts of machines, to machines that self-reproduce, to building with digital materials, to materials that are programmable and can turn themselves into parts. As we progress along that research path, knowledge and best practices are disseminated throughout the Fab Lab network, making it a cutting edge laboratory for R&D.