Let’s build 30 FabLabs to change the UK

Eddie Kirkby, Charity & Operations support manager at the Manufacturing Institute, tell us how it's possibile change everything with the labs of making, people and networking

There is a place where you can make (almost) anything. Actually, there are many places like this. One of such places is FabLab Manchester, launched in March 2010, based on the digital fabrication laboratories model (hence FabLab) conceived by Neil Gershenfeld at the MIT.

To date, approximately 7,000 users have used the Manchester labs, giving life to great and small ideas. We have Eddie Kirkby, Charity & Operations support manager at the Manufacturing Institute, Manchester and guest at the Atoms, Bits & People meeting in Rome on May 24 to tell us more about FabLabs.

Eddie has coordinated the FabLab Manchester project since 2009, when the Manufacturing Institute decided to bring Gershenfeld’s model to the UK and contaminate it with the culture of the makers. But is it true that it is not just about bits and atoms?

“It’s not the machinery that makes the FabLabs unique, but rather, the people and network. With a little help anyone can learn to use the tools and create something. This is why free access to the facility is essential and makes the FabLabs different from university or private laboratories. As well as the fundamental idea that the brightest people don’t always work in large institutions.”

The individuals and the idea that everyone can be a maker, even without knowing it, are at the centre of everything. How can you stay true to such an ambitious mission?

“Our first goal is to involve an ever expanding community on the topic of digital manufacturing. It’s simple: people should be able to make their own things and have fun while doing it. The Manchester FabLab was the first one opened in the UK and, from the outset, it has distinguished itself for its focus on economic sustainability. To survive a FabLab must cover its costs and balance its educational mission ensuring open access to the public. In our case, Fridays and Saturdays are always open days: anyone can come to us to learn and make something. Furthermore, we offer a brief introduction on machinery and safety regulations.”

FabLab Manchester offers not just open days, but also provides services and assistance to small businesses and inventors who pay to access the infrastructure. What else do you offer?

“In addition to business workshops we also organise workshops for schools. The education sector accounts for 70% of our activities, the main being the Fab Academy, an international programme, unique on a global level. It says a lot about the teaching model we adopt here: the ‘just in time learning’. Rather than teaching the fundamentals of a subject for four consecutive years, we go straight to the heart of the problem. You have a problem? We teach you what you need to solve it. One day you might want to build a GPS, so we will provide you with the necessary knowledge, step by step.”

There aren’t any Leonardo Da Vincis around no longer who know everything about everything. Is there a risk, however, to discover that you know too little?

“To tell the truth, in this way knowledge sticks in the minds of the individuals, because they have the opportunity to apply it actively. But it doesn’t mean only providing knowledge and advice: here we also supply the tools to search for new solutions and sources of knowledge. Ironically, the activities pursued in a FabLab require individuals who have at least five or six different types of qualifications. An individual alone, however expert and with a solid academic background could not possibly do it. Knowledge must be built.”

How do you imagine your future?

“We have 7 Fab Labs here in the UK, and we hope to grow to 15 by next year. Our ambitious objective is the growth of the movement by opening 30 FabLabs in the UK over the next five years. To develop these creative skills we must continue to develop the network of individuals that revolves around us. With a network of 30 labs in the UK, 80 in Europe and 160 across the rest of the world we could move a great potential and trigger major changes in our society.”

Article taken for Rome MakerFaire