Fab Lab

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

A generation ago, schools offered “shop” classes. Now we’re looking at fab labs:

Blair Evans is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an entrepreneur. For the past 15 years, he’s been the superintendent of a group of charter schools for troubled kids in Detroit, and in 2010 he opened the city’s first Fab Lab inside one of his schools. The do-it-yourself factories are designed to make it easier and cheaper for ordinary people to turn an idea into a product. Every Fab Lab includes a computer-controlled laser, a 3D printer, and a pair of computer-controlled milling machines — all connected by custom software.

“We’re building people, not just products,” Evans says. “We get better outcomes if the kids can engage in useful work. This is much more effective than having them sit on a couch and talk.” His Detroit lab, he says, “comes up with 20 different ways to customize a bike.” Evans added a water jet cutter to the workshop: “Most Fab Labs don’t have one of these,” he explains, “but we wanted one. It cuts titanium and steel. We use it to make gears for bicycles that we’re creating with modularized components, which allows people to adjust the heights or customize the controls.”

Sounds expensive:

The initial Fab Lab in Detroit cost from $200,000 to $250,000 to assemble, and Evans put his own money behind the project. A second one has opened in another of his schools, and Evans says both have paid for themselves with social-service contracts for youth development.

The fab labs have paid for themselves! (With social-service contracts for “youth development”…)


  1. Lucklucky says:

    Children are people, and people are different — something that Socialists of all colors don’t understand.

    That is why the Statist school will always fail for many.

  2. Marc Pisco says:

    So now the only way for kids to get their hands on bicycle gears is to cut them out of titanium with an automated f*****g water jet? Then how did the Wright Brothers do it? If the kids had enough interest to be worth spending the money on, they’d long since have salvaged some of the millions of perfectly good existing bicycle gears littering Detroit already.

    What utter idiocy. What an insane fantasy. Nobody who can’t invent without a “fab lab” can possibly invent anything with one. Indeed, you learn to invent by making do with whatever crap you’ve got. These kids need vocational training, not some TED talker clown masturbating his funding away trying to turn kids with 90 IQs into Thomas Edison.

    This is the thinking of somebody who has never invented or created anything, and all he knows about it, he learned from Hollywood. Big shiny lab! That’s how you do it!

  3. Similarly, if you want to teach students the basics of flying, you drop them into the cockpit of an F-22 Raptor. If you want to teach them how to swim, you throw them into some class 3 rapids.

    It’s nice to let them see how it’s (mostly) done in the real world, but they don’t learn the principles of mechanical design from seeing a CNC machine make their piece for them.

  4. David Foster says:

    Yes, I think it would be more educational (as well as cheaper) to start them out with conventional manually-operated machine tools. (They could later advance to CNC without the need for the school investing in these machines; there are services that will make a part to your design if you just ship them the appropriate files.)

    On the other hand, I suspect that adding the “sizzle” of computerization is very helpful, both in getting student interest and in selling the program to various funding agencies.

  5. William Newman says:

    Hell, just building stuff with classic hobbyist and/or high-end toy materials and tools (balsa and X-acto and glue, Erector-set-ish stuff, light sheet metal and tinsnips and Dremel tools and little bolts and nuts, unpopulated circuit boards with 0.1″ plated holes and solder and wire and lots and lots of LEDs…) is plenty educational. Decades ago ca. age 11 I took a reasonably good class at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in which we drilled and etched a simple printed circuit board and soldered in a few parts to make a little working device, and if I had to set up a course in a similar spirit today the equipment budget would be even lower. I suspect the expensive toys here are symptoms of screwed-up incentives, like some kind of PR advantage and/or institutional accounting incentives to pad equipment budgets. (PR possibility: having an inept clueless kid standing next to a whizzy machine fabricating something automatically when the “Fabricate” button is pushed may be much easier to sell as success than than having a similar kid conspicuously fail to build something from parts.)

    Admittedly sometimes higher-budget toys are really a serious improvement — e.g., an oscilloscope would have been quite expensive back at the time of that OMSI class, but would have been helpful to peek into what was going on in a nontrivial circuit. But even in that hypothetical it might be equally helpful just to back off to a pure mechanical device or a trivial electric circuit (like the classic prototype telegraph that I vaguely remember from some Boy-Scout-level books of the time) so that most of its operation can be inspected and fiddled with and understood directly, without instruments.

    Specialized not-terribly-expensive not nontrivial teaching/demo tools can sometimes be very good. I wasn’t that impressed at the time by the ripple tank experiments and demos we did in high school — the high school course unfortunately didn’t do a good job of conveying how much waves infest the world of tractable practical physics. (Perhaps that’s unavoidable in a pre-calculus physics course, since it’s hard to analyze meaningful wave problems without calculus.) But in retrospect a few years later, working in post-calculus course with fellow students who had 800 math SATs but not necessarily any physical intuition for wave phenomena, I appreciated them quite a lot. (It was rather helpful having a tangible mental model for stuff like interference.)

  6. David Foster says:

    William Newman: “working in post-calculus course with fellow students who had 800 math SATs but not necessarily any physical intuition for wave phenomena”

    As the era of mechanical analog computers drew to an end, several researchers (including Vannevar Bush, IIRC) commented that these devices helped people develop an intuitive understanding of differential equations in a way that other approaches did not. There is now a group at Marshall University which is acting on this insight by creating new mechanical differential analyzers for use as teaching tools.

    It’s on my list of things to write about, hopefully in the not-to-distant future.

  7. Robb Seaton says:

    William Newman:

    Similar experience here. Learning to solder was one of the more valuable skills I picked up in a class, mostly because of its broad applicability: fixing xboxes, keyboards, etc.

    I don’t think this “fab lab” has similar applicability although, if I’m being honest, I’d love to toy with the machinery, etc.

    David Foster:

    I’m reminded of some of the purported benefits of teaching kids to do math via an abacus.

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