MIT Media Lab professor Neil Gershenfeld coined the term “FabLabs” to describe such a set of customization manufacturing tools (CNC mills, 3D printers, etc.) that would theoretically enable people to make almost anything.
His vision was that these labs could be deployed to the inner city or developing world helping people fashion appropriate technology. A typical FabLab costs $25,000 to setup, but the entry level cost has been reduced dramatically.
Low Cost FabLab Ingredients
3D Printer – MakerBot $750
The MakerBot has severe limitations, but there is no other sub $1000 option (The lowest cost 3D printer is more than 10X the cost). If you are looking to print objects that are about the size of a clementine or larger the MakerBot will provide decent results.
3D Mill – Unimat $499
I learned about the Unimat system via AdaFruit Industries. Basically it is a mashup between a high powered Dremel tool and 80/20 stock. You can combine a motorized component with a variety of accessories to create a Mill/Lathe/Drill/Jigsaw/Sander/Wood Turner depending on the task at hand. I haven’t used one of these personally, but it looks like a great product. You have got to respect the geek cred that comes with using a 7 segment display font for your logo.
2D Plotter – Craft Robo $250
Personal paper cutters like the CraftRobo can cut 2D shapes out of sheet material, but are often dismissed as a hobbyist’s tool. However, their output is useful to the crafter and hacker alike. This tutorial shows how a CraftRobo can be used in the production of PCB’s.
You can also use devices like this to etch glass:
This low cost setup will have limits in the level of results and quality it can deliver, but there isn’t a First Robotics team that wouldn’t benefit from all these tools. The educational applications of these tools are very exciting and can help bridge the gap between making things with Lego Mindstorms and having to outsource production to expensive machine shops. The cost of the components have fallen dramatically and with sources like KickStarter, DonorsChoose, the Awesome Foundation, and a good old fashioned bake sale there is no good reason why a middle/high school can’t set up a FabLab of their own.
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