FABricating freedom – UK's first Fab Lab

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2010
Chrissy Phipps, Fab Lab Manager, works with young inventor Tayyeb Sheikh on his MP3 toothbrush

The UK’s first Fab Lab has opened in Manchester, UK, giving rise to a new trend in manufacturing where the public invent products through free access to design and equipment. Martin Parley visited the site to find out more

Based at the new, multicoloured, landmark Chips building in the New Islington area of Manchester, it is apt that the 35th Fab Lab globally – and a first for the UK – is surrounded by evidence of local regeneration and development.

The founder, Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Director of The Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT, USA, says, ‘The labs give people the tools they need to create technology, and make stuff they cannot buy in the shops. Manchester is at the centre of a new
industrial revolution where anyone can make anything, anywhere using digital manufacturing’.

The organisation is overseen by parent charity, The UK Manufacturing Institute, which co-ordinates and delivers the projects. The Institute provides access to manufacturers and contacts that have experience in the industry and encourages members of the public to share their ideas.

Julie Madigan, Chief Executive of the Manufacturing Institute, says, ‘This is an opportunity to broaden our innovation base and increase crucial invention skills. It is a proven grass roots approach that will directly benefit the economy and different parts of the community’.

A variety of materials are available to use, including plastics, metals, wax and woods. However, with 40 people visiting per week, if a project uses significant quantities of material, a cost is incurred. Businesses using the facilities must book the space and pay for the materials, but they are given the
assistance of two engineers, and do not have to share their ideas if it could infringe on future intellectual property rights. This also applies to individuals with confidential work.

Haydn Insley, Charity Project Manager of the Lab, says, ‘Learning for yourself how to build something empowers the individual, improving their skills and confidence, which makes them more employable.

‘There is a database of all projects in all the labs around the world, for instance, I can make something that has been made in the lab in Kabul. The designs are up on the internet with how they made it, the mistakes they made and how they solved them.’

Sparking invention

‘Products made at the Lab, such as a ‘Crackit bat’, a cross between a tennis racket and a cricket bat for use on the beach, have been developed up to a prototype stage. Inventor Matt King, a former Australian international rugby league player who has been with the Warrington Wolves team for the past two years, says the product’s material selection was problematic.

‘We started with wood, but wood has structural weaknesses, so we decided on some kind of composite. Fibreglass could cause safety problems with sticking into people’s hands, so we made a composite out of canvas and resin. This gave us a rock solid and light structure,’ says Insley.

The ‘Sky baby’ folding carrycot was also developed and prototyped at Fab Lab in Manchester. Creators Rachel and Nico Arvanitis, together with Lab staff, designed the travel cot with an ultralight proprietary composite so it weighs only a quarter of a standard travel cot weight at 1.3kg and packs away into a small bag after use.

‘They came to us through Manchester Business School, which is an incubation centre for us,’ says Insley, ‘The whole gestation period was two months and they now have interest from international companies.’

It is these links to industry organisations along with the lab facilities that have proved attractive to companies and individuals alike. The Lab is equipped with a ShopBot – a computer numerical control (CNC) cutting machine for various materials – a laser cutter, CNC miller and 3D scanner, a CNC router, a 3D printer, a vinyl cutter, an embroidery machine, plus electronics equipment and workshop tools. Most are computer controlled and easy to use, but help is provided by trained engineers.

Final-year product design students from the University of Salford, UK, Andy Tame and Peter Jackson, use the site. ‘The college does not get equipment like this, so it seems silly to waste the opportunity to work here and better our degrees,’ says Jackson. ‘I am working on a product that aids water
purification in developing countries. We are at the point where we can model it physically using 3D files on the printer.’

Tame is developing a hygiene concept for supermarket trolleys that smears hand gel onto the handle. ‘It just slides across leaving hand gel, which gives it a cleaner feel.’

He says, ‘Making things here is a lot easier than at college. We just put our files into the computer and it is all done automatically.’

‘[We can then] approach companies with our proof of concept and make things happen,’ adds Jackson.

Further information: Fab Lab

Fab Lab is funded by The Manchester Innovation Investment Fund, which comprises The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, The Northwest Development Agency, Manchester City Council, Manchester Knowledge Capital and the Commission for the New Economy.