The Fab Lab, discretely tucked behind U of I’s ACES Library, may look like an ordinary workshop, but inside the small brick building, something magical is happening. Community members of all ages and backgrounds are busy turning their ingenuities into realities using state of the art design technologies.
The Fab Lab concept, short for fabrication laboratory, was originally an outreach program that was born in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). Neil Gershenfeld, the powerhouse behind the original Fab Lab, explores how content of information relates to its physical representation. Based on the idea that anyone should be able to make anything, this project has spread from not only MIT, but to rural India, Norway, South Africa and here at UIUC. One hundred fifty Fab Labs are located around the world, where all are connected and a part of the “Global Fab Lab Network.”
The Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab came into existence about five years ago, after Joel Gershenfeld was inspired by Neil’s efforts at MIT. Joel went to then-Provost Linda Katehi with the idea and Katehi put aside $50,000 to fund this program. With such a limited budget, the organizers were faced with extensive planning and preparation and looking for a place to call home base. They ended up in the campus’ second oldest building with a large load of donated or salvaged equipment and inventory.
Today, they pride themselves on being community driven, aiming to “increase the capabilities and broaden their horizons.”
To be considered a part of the Global Fab Lab Network, organizers interested in it need to be open to the public (at least part of the time), agree to share knowledge and have the same standard set of machines and open source software that other labs around the world have. Betty Barrett, an assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relation said, “you have the ability and capability to dream it, to think it, to do it on the computer, then to fabricate it with these machines.”
The Fab Lab has a multitude of machines available that can cater to literally any project as well as a staff willing to assist in all matters of prototyping and creating. They have tools such as laser engravers, 3D printers, vinyl cutters, milling machines, drawing tablets, scroll saws, neuromakers and many more.
The program is funded through grants, but mostly relies on volunteer labor. One of the grants was based on community management, which is why they have a lot of links to various organizations and initiatives. For example, they are currently organizing the first Youth Club (unnamed as of yet) where kids between the ages of 10-15 come in one Saturday a month and have the ability to use the entire lab on their own. Even more interesting is the fact that the Fab Lab is liaising with a young girl who is 11-years-old.
“Digital fabrication is, by itself, revolutionary. In the sense that it is becoming less and less expensive to do something digitally,” said Barrett. With this program, it is easier than ever to accomplish projects. If you like to design and make things, stop in to the CUC Fab Lab and try some of the machines out or just hang out. The people who come in there to work or volunteer love being there and are extremely welcoming and ready to help you with whatever you need. They are located by Peabody and Goodwin and details on hours are available at their website.