Grassroots innovation in Fab Labs

I’m sitting in a large wooden building constructed in what feels like a traditional Lapland style. It’s the end of September. The knotty pine siding bathes everything (and all my photos, no matter the light setting) in a golden glow. If it were winter, I’d be pulling on woollen socks and getting ready to go skiing. But it’s autumn, so the landscape outside is also shining in a golden glow. It’s Sunday, but there are still three of us inside here working away. I’m at the northernmost Fab Lab in the world, just outside of Lyngseidet in northern Norway.

MIT-Fab Lab Norway
MIT-Fab Lab Norway, Lyngen

I’m here because I’m researching Fab Labs as an alternative model of production and consumption. What I’m coming to learn here now is how Fab Labs are also an alternative model of very localized innovation that is nevertheless connected to a global “network of brains”, as Haakon says. Haakon Karlsen jr. is the Director of this Fab Lab, which also happens to be the very first Fab Lab – along with inner city Boston and Pune, India – established as three outreach projects by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Soon MIT-Fab Lab Norway will be ten years old.

Haakon is sitting with Knut, who is the key person behind the ‘helicopter project’ they are now discussing. This helicopter is a small device – about forty or fifty centimetres in diameter – that can fly up to a kilometre or higher and carry sensors or cameras. By coincidence I first heard about these devices on Australian radio last week, where they were called drones. The concern of the Australian reporter was issues regarding privacy and surveillance – when a drone operated by a company or a private individual photographs where it is legally not allowed to go. Haakon however is not concerned with the ‘bad’ things people can do with this device; in Fab Labs the philosophy is often that people need to be open, things need to be discussed openly, and people need to take responsibility for what they develop and what they use. Through the learning, exploring, and experimenting that happens in a Fab Lab also comes responsibility.

This particular drone is a ‘hexacopter’ due to its six arms. The arms’ propellors are made of birch and were fabricated by the Lab’s ShopBot. It is battery powered, GPS enabled and uses a gyro to help stabilize its flight. The Fab Lab Norway team made the first prototype out of acrylic (cut on the laser cutter and bent with the bender) and documented the whole process, posting it online in typical Fab Lab sharing fashion. They also entered it in this year’s Fab Lab “World Cup Contest” where the challenge was “Fab Flight”; this contest was connected to the annual Fab Lab meeting, which this year was held in Wellington, New Zealand. And the Norway team won! You can see the entry, the making of it, and the test flight in Norway here.

first prototype in acrylic
first hexacopter prototype in acrylic

As I’m writing this, Haakon and Knut are now working on the next prototype, changing the material from acrylic to carbon fibre tubes and working on the design to optimize the weight. This involves simplifying the structure to minimize the number of screws, compacting the ‘equipment’ on board, and making it as easy to understand as possible. In other words, it should be fabbable: all Fab Labs should be make it on their equipment, assemble it, and repair broken parts. When it’s done, Haakon reckons it will cost one-tenth of the price of current drones, which are notoriously expensive. The plans will be uploaded for all Fab Labs to be able to access, and it can then be an actual commercial product that Fab Labs can use to gain revenue – customized to local needs. In northern Norway, for instance, it can be very useful for local sheep farmers to use to locate and check on their sheep way up in the fells.

the next prototype
the latest hexacopter prototype, in carbon fibre

When these kinds of inventions are openly shared online, it means that anyone can actually take advantage of it and commercialize it. “Of course,” says Haakon, “But we hope that these people will also join into some kind of community, so that we can all benefit from improvement ideas.” The notable thing about Fab Labs and the whole Maker Movement is indeed their generative nature. Someone invents a new form or product and uploads it – the next person tries it out and suggests improvements – the next one again suggests further improvements – and so on. This model gives completely new meaning to any notion of intellectual property or ownership of ideas. It always makes me think of one Industrial Design teacher I had years ago in my Bachelor of Arts studies: “If you have come up with one good idea, you will come up with another.” And you can’t always develop very local solutions to very local needs as easily, cheaply, and with the involvement and commitment of the local stakeholders as you can with the Fab Lab model, especially this Norwegian example.

Of course a lot of this is driven by a desire to experiment, tinker and invent. A friend recently pointed out that a drone is quite noisy, and it would just scare the sheep witless if it were actually used in the fells. Still, I want to emphasize that the developing and sharing of knowledge and skills is more important than just the machines: Fab Labs are not just 3D printers and laser cutters, despite media hype. And I’m surprised at how many people express the need for cheap rapid prototyping capacity. Given how relatively mature the profession of industrial design is and the timeline of industrialization and mass production, you’d think that rapid prototyping services would be much more accessible both geographically and in terms of price.

Now I’m back in Helsinki, and I’m looking forward to observing how the Aalto Fab Lab helps both the Aalto community and local people with their special needs and new inventions. As Haakon continually reminds me, a Fab Lab is not the building or the facilities: it is the people – the people in your global network that you meet regularly online, as well as all kinds of people in your local neighbourhood.