A few weeks ago I visited the Fab Lab at Metropolitan Community College here in Omaha and took a tour of the facilities. I found a small space packed full of great equipment from hobby-level 3D printers, to a 3×4′ laser cutter, a CNC mill and much more. Better yet, I found that the people who work at the Fab Lab are friendly, patient and willing to teach anyone who comes through the doors.
At the initial tour I learned that in order to gain access to the Lab one must take two non-credit courses at the College (Fab Lab 1 and 2). As someone who just got out of academia, I was kind of bummed, but only for a few seconds. Apparently these classes are nothing like the courses I’m used to – one of the courses was just one night, while the other was two nights. Even more surprising, the first course only cost around $30, while the second course costs about $50. All I had to do was call up the MCC registrar and directly enroll in the courses, and I was done. Not bad!
What is a Fab Lab?
For those of you who may not have heard the term “Fab Lab”, think of it as a small-scale community workshop that contains equipment that people can use to make just about anything they want. Fab Labs typically contain a more or less “standardized” set of equipment in order to be officially called a Fab Lab and be considered part of the global Fab Lab network.
The concept of Fab Labs was invented by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms as an educational outreach program that integrates important fabrication technology into communities all over the world. This network now includes over 125 Fab Labs in 34 countries, all of which you can actually interact with in real-time via live webcam feeds and videoconferencing equipment at every Fab Lab!
Here is some more information about Fab Labs from around the web:
A fab lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop offering (personal) digital fabrication.
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, and to invent.
The MCC Fab Lab is equipped with lots of great equipment that I couldn’t help drooling over. All of this equipment is available for community use, after taking both Fab Lab 1 and Fab Lab 2 to get trained on how to do so properly.
Photos of all of this equipment can be found at the bottom of this article.
- Laser cutter and engraver (Legacy Systems 1100 Series) – with 3×4′ bed, an 80W laser and a rotary attachment, this laser cutter can easily handle just about anything I could throw at it.
- CNC milling machine (Roland MDX-40A) – fully-enclosed, super-quiet 3-axis CNC milling machine that allows for 2D, 2.5D and 3D milling of blocks of materials like wax, foam, wood and maybe even some soft metals.
- Hobby-level 3D printers (one Makerbot Replicator 2X and some Afina H-Series printers) – slightly nicer 3D printers than I am used to using, good for all sorts of prototyping. I was most impressed with their cabinet full of plastic filament for their machines. We’re talking about dozens and dozens of spools. I’ve never seen so much filament in my life!
- Industrial-grade 3D printer (3DSystems Projet 260C) – a full-color powder-based printer, with a separate vacuum chamber that recycles unused material, that uses a material similar to gypsum and superglue binder to construct super high-quality (but somewhat fragile) 3D models. However, the full-color capabilities of this thing are astounding, and the bed size is quite a bit larger than the other 3D printers that I have used.
- 3D scanner (Roland Picza LPX-600) – a fully-enclosed, full-color optical 3D scanner that spins objects on a turntable and observes how laser lines distort to map their shape. Put object in, get 3D model out. Can’t wait to try this one out!
- Large vinyl cutter – a machine useful for making signs and T-shirts, but I don’t know much about it. I probably won’t use this much, but it’s there!
- Basic shop tools – I only saw a scroll saw, a full-size drill press, a desktop Dremel press and an angle grinder. Useful, but also somewhat limited to relatively small projects.
- Computer lab – a separate room contains about 20 computers running lots of useful software that you can use to create and prepare design files for the fabrication machinery. There were some strange software choices I noticed (default browser is IE, and they use CorelDraw instead of Illustrator), but they do have other great things as well. I really enjoyed the fact that nearly every machine in the Fab Lab had a dedicated computer next to it that you can use, and all computers are connected to a local network so you can pass design files around extremely easily.
First projects at the Fab Lab
Last Thursday I enrolled in Fab Lab 2 and showed up to the lab with some work to do. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that instead of a PowerPoint-ridden lecture format class, the class was really more like open lab time where you can hang out with the instructors and ask them questions at any time and have them train you on what you need to know as you need to know it. Very casual and relaxed atmosphere, and I felt very welcome as soon as I walked in the door.
I brought some of my prior and on-going work to share, as well as the design files for a couple of things I wanted to laser cut, including a plexiglass mask for a Burning Man artcar project, and a simple wooden base for a collaboration with a glassblowing artist. One of the instructors showed me how to operate the giant laser in about 5 minutes, and showed me how to prepare my design files in about 10 minutes, then let me do it all myself! By the end of the night I was able to walk away with a box of prototypes and a smile on my face, and I can’t wait to go back next week and keep working!