Probably the most important parts of the Fab Lab philosophy are the idea of Open Source, and the idea of “Making”. These ideas are often brought together with the idea of a set of Open Source designs that people can use, such as:

Buildings: Wikihouse

WikiHouse is an open source construction set.  The aim is to allow anyone to design, download, and “print” CNC-milled houses and components, which can be assembled with minimal formal skill or training.

Model of the K5054 Spitfire prototype, first flown at Eastleigh aerodrome in March 1936

The picture on the right is of a model of the first prototype Spitfire, which flew at Eastleigh aerodrome in March 1936.  I have called the Fab Lab that I am setting up in Eastleigh the Spitfire Fab Lab, in honour of the plane.

But I have included a  picture of a model of the Spitfire, rather than the real thing, because the wooden base on which the model is standing has been routed (the curved shape round the edges) and it is about routing (say “r -oww-ting”) that I wish to write!

At Spitfire Fab Lab we have three different CNC routers, a baby one (the ShopBot Handibot), a mummy one (the Shopbot Desktop) and a daddy one (The Blackfoot 8×4).  But let’s not rush ahead.  For a moment, never mind what a CNC router is or does, what is a non-computer controlled router, and what can it do.

Check out this short video by the doyen of router experts, Jeremy Broun (while watching the video, enjoy the guitar music, played by Jeremy on a guitar that he built, using a router!)

Well, clearly you can make just about anything with a router … if you happen to be as skilled as Jeremy.  Which I, and most of the rest of us, are not!

When using a router you move it left and right, backwards and forwards, and up and down, carefully and skilfully.  And a computer, linked to the right sort of router, can do that better than most of us!

So, here’s a short video showing a small project that has been made on a ShopBot Desktop.  Notice how he says that he designed the gears on a separate piece of software, then loaded that into the software that comes with the Shopbot machine.  Even Jeremy Broun might find that intriguing, I suspect! (skip forward to 20″ in to get past the titles).

Notice also how he refers to changing the lettering “on the final product” … when you have a CNC router, with the design in software, it becomes much easier to make your product, go back and make some changes in the design, and then make another copy.  You might make the prototypes in a cheap material (pine, say) and the final copy in a better wood, or even in metal.

My friend, Sarah, was curious as to how this all works, and even though our CNC machines haven’t arrived yet, I do have the software, so I can demonstrate that.  My standard demo is to make a name plate, so let’s make one for Sarah.

At the end of the CAD/CAM process above I said that we save the design file, and then send it to the CNC machine.  Well, that could be the CNC machine that’s in my workshop, or it could be any CNC machine anywhere in the world … and this is another big advantage of “21st Century manufacturing” … you can make design files, and send them to other people to actually make.

There’s a website, OpenDesk.cc, where designers create designs and upload them (for free).  If you have a CNC machine, you can download that design and cut it out for yourself (or for someone else).  This is actually a four=person desk: maybe you just want a two-person desk … you can download the design and modify it before you print it out.

But what if you would like a desk like this, but don’t have a CNC machine?  Well, there’s a map showing people all over the world who will do it for you.  How much they will charge will depend on each maker, and what material you choose.

You might choose to have a simple name plate, like Sarah’s above, or a whole house … take a look at our Wikihouse page.

So, what machines do we have?

The “daddy” machine is a “Build Your CNC”  Blackfoot 8×4.  It is capable of cutting an 8′ x 4′ sheet of  ¾” (2.4m x 1.2m x 18mm) structural ply.

It comes as a kit of parts, and I have a few week’s job to build it when it arrives!

It is what we will use to cut the parts to make Wikihouse structures: sheds, greenhouses, garden gazebos, garages, houses … even the buildings to house Fab Labs.

Next is our ShopBot Desktop.

This neat little machine with a cutting area of 24″ x 18″ (.61m x .46m).  However, although you can’t use material wider that 2′ (610mm), there are clever ways of moving longer material through the machine using a registering system.

Here’s Ted Hall, the founder of ShopBot Tools, talking about the Desktop, showing a system for cutting parts from a piece of wood much longer than 18″, and also talking about some other key advantages of CNC.

Lastly there’s our baby CNC, the amazing ShopBot Handibot, what they call a “Smart Handtool”.

When I first saw the Handibot I was blown away by the brilliance of the idea.  And Shopbot talked about having the Handibot made by “distributed manufacturing”  … much like the network of Makers that you could use to make your Open Dek which we talked about above.

I bought the Shopbot Desktop and the Shopbot Handibot because I am very keen to be a “distributed manufacturer” of the Handibot; currently negotiations are at an early stage (not least because they haven’t arrived at the time of writing, early May 2014).  Here’s David Bryan talking about the Handibot:

Bene 01

This is Mr Bene Ficial, our new Animatronic from the Animatronic Shop in Orlando.  At least, it’s most of Bene … he’s a little slack-jawed at the moment as his jaw servo is on the research bench as we develop new software for Bene.

SD card 2

As he comes he can remember a few movements, but as those movements are stored in Arduino memory, and the Arduino only has about 2k of memory, Bene can’t remember much.

But, as of today, Bene has a micro SD card added to his setup, and it currently has a 1Gb micro SD card in it.  Using the SD card requires a modification of the original code (actually, it requires a re-write, because I don’t have the original code: it’s not {yet?} open source).

Because the SD card shield uses the Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) to communicate with the Arduino, and the SPI interface uses some pins that were being used to control Bene, things have had to change around a little.  And I have taken advantage of the availability of spare pin-outs on the SD card shield to solder the control and power lines for the bot to make things a little neater and more robust.

SD card 3

So, the hardware mods are complete; now I have to write the new software to use the different pins, and to write Bene’s program of movements to the SD card.

Watch this space!

Are you a teacher, maybe worrying that technology passes you by, especially in an age where there is so much attention being placed on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?

Many people think of technology and shrink inside: they feel it’s something dark and soul-less, and inimical to their spirit.  Which is a shame!  “Techne” was the Greek goddess of art and artifice: τεχνη is the Greek word for “art”, so, strictly speaking, “technology” is the study of art.

But it has got separated in the 20th and 21st centuries … until now!

“Computing for the Terrified & for the Merely Perplexed” is a gentle course, designed for teachers who maybe feel alienated from modern technology, and under pressure, given the intense attention placed on STEM subjects.

In this class geeks (that’s “geeks”, not “Greeks”) are banned (or, at least, confined to the back of the class), while the rest of us explore how easy it is to build a computer (we build two: one takes about 10 minutes if you’re slow — and slow is just fine — the other takes about an hour) and then to make it dance (in the case of one of them, quite literally!) … oh, and, neither involves soldering or any other hot implements, other than a coffee cup, with coffee in it.

One of the computers takes the place of a PC or a MAC (and uses totally and forever free software).  It has been designed for children (which is sometimes scary … but we don’t allow them in the class, either!) and doesn’t take long to learn.  Programming this computer is more like making sculpture with building blocks than writing out stuff that looks like esoteric maths.

Pico and Giga on the moonAnd we use that computer to play some games (keep the princess away from the wicked witch) or to tell stories (just why is there a blue hippopotamus, with green wings on the moon?).

Defensive Dress

Defensive Dress, from “Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication” by Neil Gerschenfeld

The other computer was designed for artists, by a couple of Italian artists.  In fact its programs aren’t called “programs”, they are called “sketches”.  This computer was originally conceived to allow artists to build installation art that can react to the viewer or to surroundings.  It has all sorts of sensors (I have seen it built into a dress that can tell if you’re getting too close) and all sorts of ways of reacting (the dress raised some prickles, a bit like a porcupine).

The class does its best to minimise “geek speak”, and absolutely makes sure to explain any geek speak that it does use, and we make sure that we move along at a pace that is comfortable to everyone.

While we are learning this technology, we also take the time to get to know each other, to discover who already knows what (and/or wants to know what) and we discuss ways of building the technology into the curricula that we are teaching.  We pay particular attention to the effects that gender roles may have on childrens’ perception of technology, and how we can find appropriate activities for all interests.

Later on we may move on to using 3D printers to create interesting artifacts, and to see how they can also be used to encourage creativity, especially by story-telling.

“Computing for the Terrified” was originally invented by Kitteridge Cowlishaw, who was then working at IBM.  It was in the days of the very first PCs, and set out just to show people that they didn’t bite.  James Hardiman later took the course and made it part of a study into “overcoming learning blocks in intelligent adults”: it was clear then (and still is today!) that there are all sorts of subjects that cause perfectly intelligent people to jump backwards, saying “I couldn’t possibly” … and computing and technology has to be pretty high on that list!

To be excluded from technology is to be excluded from a large part of modern life.  This course aims to help teachers to cross that bridge so that they may help others to follow.

By the way, terror isn’t a pre-req, not even perplexity.  Curiosity might help, though!

We are still putting the finishing touches to this course, and arranging dates and venues.  If you think you may be interested, please complete the form below, and we will be in touch.

We have a meeting scheduled on Wednesday 7th December at Bore Place, near Edenbridge, Kent:

Check out the Meetup Group Event, here.

Here’s Bore Place: http://www.commonwork.org/

StackExchange curate some excellent Q&A forums. They also have a fairly rigorous open process for deciding which new forums to start. A proposal for a forum dedicated to 3D printers, laser cutters and other sorts of personal manufacturing is currently going through that process. Today they entered the “commitment” phase, asking people who would like to use the forum to commit to asking at least 10 questions in the first 3 months. ; If you’re interested in this forum appearing ;- and I suggest you probably are :) ;- then please visit this link and make your commitment known. http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/22246/3d-printers-laser-cutters-personal-manufacturing