Stuart Lawn is currently the director of FABLAB Manorhamilton, a digital fabrication facility and creative makerspace in rural Leitrim. Previously he was a Post-punk Bassist, an Indie A&R Man, Sound Engineer, Record Producer, IT support Techie and Broadcast Technical Director. He believes given half a chance everyone has a great design or an innovative product inside them and he really wants to be there to help make that spark of creativity happen.
The Fab Lab is an amazing idea. What is the concept and where did it originate from?
The first Fab Lab started about 12 years ago as an MIT educational outreach project and was based in a community training centre in Inner City Boston. The concept, orginated by Professor Neil Ger Shenfeld from MIT, proposed a Fab Lab as providing access to digital fabrication technologies to empower individuals and organisations to turn their ideas into new prototypes and products. A Fab Lab is also a platform for learning and innovation: a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, and to invent.
All Fab Labs share a common set of digital fabrication tools, such as Laser Cutters, 3D Printers, Vinyl Cutters, Electronic Prototyping and Programming tools. This makes collaboration with other Fab Labs around the world easier.
From that first Lab in Boston there are now over 600 Fab Labs worldwide, on every continent except Antartica. In Ireland there are 5, Belfast, Derry, Limerick, Cloughjordan and now Manorhamilton!
Did you work alone or with a team, and if others were involved, how did they help to shape the unique experience that is Fab Lab Manorhamilton.
I’d long held an interest in Fab Labs after seeing a TED talk that Neil Gershenfeld gave on the concept. The idea of actually starting a Fab Lab was first considered by myself, Leo Scarff and Alastair (Ali) Farrell in Nov 2014. We are all Makers and have a passion for using digital technology to create things, be that music, apps, graphics, design, furniture or gadgets. Leo is an experienced product and furniture designer and Ali is an immensely talented CAD designer and programmer. Between us we realised that the opportunities and physical space for individuals, groups and businesses to experiment on new products and ideas was lacking in the North West and that we should create that space. So in June 2015 we did and FABLAB Manorhamilton was born!
What was the initial reaction from the general public?
We had already tested the waters by running a Pop Up Fab Lab at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre in Feb 2015 and from that we had surveyed the audience to see what people wanted to see in the Fab Lab. So from this we had a good idea of how to pitch it to various groups. Our first full event was a week long summer camp for children. This sold out very quickly and we had to run extra dates to accommodate all the children that wanted to take part. It was a terrific beginning for the Fab Lab.
We are finding that people need to see the Lab and for us to explain the technology but once you do that they get it pretty quickly and you can see the cogs turning as they work out what they could make with it all. So we are doing more free taster sessions at the Lab and Pop Up Fab Labs in other locations to get people up close and personal with the concepts.
What type of customer do you identify with? Do you have a regular client base?
The tagline of Fab Labs the world over is that they are places where “Anyone Can Make (Almost) Anything”. We work with adults and children, amateurs and professionals, businesses and hobbyists. Our regular client base would include Northwest Artists and Makers who either want to experiment with new materials or technology or want to micro-manufacture a short run of pieces to sell. We also do a lot of work with local community groups and schools in Leitrim.
Can you give some example of the types of projects that have been made in the Fab Lab?
Since we opened, the Fab Lab has hosted a wide variety of projects from a diverse range of clients. Some examples of the projects produced at the Lab include, Laser Cut 3D Sculpture, Interior Signage, T-Shirt Design and Printing, Jewelry Design and Prototyping, a Mechanical Loom, Stencils and Stampers, Bespoke Furniture, 3D Map Making, Engraved Glass Art and 3D Printed Toys.
3D Printing was an almost alien concept just a few years ago. The idea would have been unthinkable. Can you talk us through the process?
3D Printing as a technology is actually 3 decades old. The first 3D printer was sold in 1986, it was as big as a fridge and cost over €150,000! The technology and cost has reduced in size over the last 30 years.
All the 3D Printers we have in the Fab Lab use a special plastic called PLA. It is a by-product of corn oil manufacture and is an eco-friendly material. 3D Printing works in a similar way to the egg slicer gadget in your kitchen at home. You start with a 3D model on your computer and in the same way that your egg gets split up into layers by the slicer, the 3D model gets sliced up into lots of thin layers. These slices are then sent one by one to the 3D printer which puts down layer after layer of the melted PLA until it has reconstructed the object in full. Needless to say this process can be time-consuming.
I predict that in 5 years time 3D Printing will be as common in homes as Inkjet Printing. At the New York Toy Fair last month, Mattel showed a 3D printer designed for children, called a Thingmaker, that will go on sale later this year for €300. It will allow children to design, customise and 3D print their own action Lego-like action figures and dolls.
What facilities and services are most used at FabLab Manorhamilton and how, in the future, do you see the business develop and grow.
The most used machine at the Fab Lab is the Laser Cutter. The sheer versatility of these amazing machines with their ability to engrave designs and make precise cuts mean they can be used to make all kinds of things. Also the range of materials that a Laser Cutter can work with is endless. It can engrave on practically anything, even chocolate and seaweed. Plus it can cut acyrlic, wood, plastic, paper, cardboard, leather, cotton, felt and most man made fabrics. We love designing stuff for the Laser Cutter and we provide this as a service to anyone who wants to create a working prototype of an idea or just to create a one off special item.
A developing area is the training side of the business. Up to now we have run short courses that are very hands on. The idea being that people hit the ground running and get using the machines to make things quickly. For these workshops we like to show how easy it is to get started with using digital fabrication tools.
In the next few months though we will have developed a longer QQI5 certified course that gives people a recognised qualification. This course will involve working individually and also in teams to complete a design brief and create a portfolio of digital fabrication and design work that can be used as a stepping stone to 3rd level education. We really want people to be inspired by the possibilities the Fab Lab offers.
What things or ideas inspire you?
In general it is usually the ideas that have the power to transform peoples lives in a profound way that inspire me. I’m from the UK and I worked for a while with amputees and seeing how prosthetic limbs can make the difference between a person being in a wheelchair or walking or holding a spoon again will stay with me forever. Of course, now with 3D Printing it is possible to print fully functioning mechanical hands and limbs that are uniquely tailored to each individual. The charity E-nable are creating open source designs for upper limb prosthetic hands and lower arms and using the community of 3D printer enthusiasts to print the parts for affected users worldwide. It is a truly inspiring thing to see a young boy pick up a ball and throw it for the first time in his life due to a 3D printed hand. The Fab Lab has signed up to be a fabricator of these parts so I’m really happy to do something inspiring with 3D printing.