Soon, you'll be able to use one, too. You could head over on March 2 to the Maine Engineering Week Expo at USM's field house and check out the Creation Station — or you could wait a bit and play with a printer as part of the first truly open Maine FabLab that will spin up in a couple of weeks at Engine, a gallery and "flex-space" in Biddeford that's dedicated to promoting the creative economy in Maine. Letter-of-intent papers were signed just this past weekend.
What's a FabLab? It's a place where people (like you, if you want) make things, using all manner of digital and analog tools, including 3D printers, but also just soldering irons and conventional lathes and the like, first envisioned and coined by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, which now helps to organize FabLabs around the world. There are now maybe 150 globally, with about 35 here in the United States. It can be hard to keep track. MIT says the number of labs is currently doubling about every 18 months, and FabLab isn't even a trademarked name (it's not even clear what it's short for — some say "fabrication lab," while others go with "fabulous lab") and sometimes they just sort of pop up regardless of MIT's involvement.
There's actually been a FabLab up in Deer Isle since 2010, thanks to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in the summer, you have to pay to get in, and in the winter, well, it's on Deer Isle . . .
See, the idea of a FabLab is tightly comingled with openness. "Anyone can come in and make anything," says Sarah Boisvert, CEO of Greenwood Tech Strategies and head of Maine FabLab, who is, indeed, working with MIT and the Center for Bits and Atoms. "The power is in two things. One is just having a number of different technologies available to use so you have the right tool for the job, whether it's a 3D printer or a laser cutter or a milling machine or an Arduino station [just Google it; arduinos are a whole 'nother article]. But the other power is social. A FabLab creates an open and safe and collaborative space for people to conceive . . . And there are people to help you and workshops to get you up to speed."
Or, as Gershenfeld puts it in a must-read article called "How to Make Almost Anything" published in Foreign Affairs last fall, "the real strength of a FabLab is not technical; it is social. The innovative people that drive a knowledge economy share a common trait: by definition, they are not good at following rules. To be able to invent, people need to question assumptions. They need to study and work in environments where it is safe to do that. Advanced educational and research institutions have room for only a few thousand of those people each. By bringing welcoming environments to innovators wherever they are, this digital revolution will make it possible to harness a larger fraction of the planet's brainpower."
DETAILED CREATION An example from 3D Printshow London, held in October 2012, shows the intricacy and substance possible with 3D printing.
Sounds touchy-feely, right? But Tammy Ackerman, executive director and co-founder of Engine down in Biddeford, is buying what Boisvert and the FabLab concept is selling.