Can FabLabs Change The Future Of Manufacturing?

Dec 23, 2013

Endless assembly lines, huge factories, and smoking chimneys. These are probably the first things that come to mind when a lot of us think about manufacturing.

Most of our goods are produced in this fashion, and we're used to consuming already manufactured products that we can buy from the store around the corner (or have delivered to us by Amazon).

But what if we could manufacture our own products locally, independently, and at an affordable price?

The answer to this are so-called FabLabs, short for fabrication laboratory. They are small manufacturing facilities that provide modern, computer-operated, small-scale manufacturing tools like 3-D printers, CNC-machines, and other tools that enable non-professionals to manufacture 3-D objects themselves, creating grassroots production of useful goods.

Since this past March, Berlin has had its own FabLab located in Mitte. I paid a visit to the FabLab wondering if it was possible to print a 3-D version of the NPR logo.

If you think a FabLab looks like a flashy high-tech science fiction version of a traditional factory, you couldn’t be more wrong. Berlin’s FabLab is located in a simple back room of a storage building on the site of an old, abandoned beer brewery in Mitte.

However, the possibilities of localized manufacturing become apparent once you enter the FabLab. A table full of printed rack-wheels and small devices illustrates the great variety of plastic products one can manufacture with modern manufacturing tools while the designers work on their notebooks, continually coming up with new ideas.

Wolf Jeschonnek is the founder of FabLab Berlin. Originally a product designer, he got a taste of the open-source manufacturing scene and soon wanted to start a FabLab on his own.

The original concept was developed at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Equipped with a scholarship sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service, Jeschonnek traveled to the U.S. and visited the MIT FabLab as well as other FabLabs to find the best way to adapt the idea.

Back in Germany, he teamed up with two partners and opened up the FabLab in March.

FabLab Berlin has been an immediate success. More than 150 private designers currently work on projects in the lab, and with the help of volunteers, it can offer tutorials on 3-D printing, designing, building a 3-D printer, among others. All machines can be used by private individuals for a fee, and Friday nights is completely free of charge.

Jeschonnek intends to expand the commercial part of his private business to lengthen the time frame of free machine use for the general public. Side projects include a mobile FabLab that can be stored in a recreational vehicle; this has already been presented at a Berlin-based manufacturing conference this fall.

My mission at FabLab was to make the letters "NPR" three dimensional in some way, well, at least the logo, which I wanted to print in 3-D. Surprisingly, this proved to be easier than I thought.

Within minutes, Jeschonnek had turned the 2-D NPR logo I brought on an USB-stick into a 3-D model using specialist software. The printer can only print one color at a time, so we had to print each letter separately. The printer basically melts plastic fiber at high temperatures to form the objects. In less than half an hour, the entire logo was printed in good quality and costs less than 50 cents, including material and energy use.

NPR logo
The 3-D printed NPR logo sits next to the 2 Euro coin for scale.
Credit Jörg Bennet Wimalasena

However fun this was, the broader implications of 3-D printing technology exceed simple cubic items. Bike parts can be printed. Even dental prosthesis have already been printed using 3-D printers, and more advanced models are even able to print ceramic and metal.

More importantly, however, these new technologies enable individuals to reclaim some of the manufacturing independence that was lost with the beginning of industrialization. FabLab manufacturing will never overshadow traditional manufacturing, but it can help to educate the public about modern technology and localized production.

If you are ready to print your own espresso cup, Christmas decorations, or children’s toys, then pay a visit to FabLab Berlin.

FabLab Berlin is located at Saarbrücker Straße 24, 10405 Berlin. Opening hours are Monday – Friday, 10.00-20.00; Saturday and Sunday 12.00-18.00. Open Lab Day is Friday 18.30 – 21.30. The staff is English-speaking, and the website is partly in English as well.