16 Jun 2016
Entrepreneurship & Management
Smart Fab Labs Coming Soon to a Location near You!
On May 12, 2016, a team of researchers at the ÉTS (Darine Ameyed, PhD student, and Mario Dubois, PhD in innovation management) presented a project called “Smart Fab Labs: a smart approach to promote innovation and facilitate management within the Fab Labs Nation project in Canada”. This project was initiated by Monique Chartrand, Executive Director of the Communautique organization, and her team. Its aim is to contribute to the creation of 50 Smart Fab Labs in Canada.
This seminar was presented during the 84th edition of the conference held by the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS), organized in collaboration with the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). From May 9 to 13, 2016, nearly 4,000 scientific communications took place, spread out among 227 seminars, 600 free communications, and 8 “Science-moi!” public activities.
This article summarizes the lecture given by the ÉTS authors at this conference.
The Story behind the Fab Labs
The story of the Fab Labs began in 1952, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) connected a computer prototype to a milling machine, creating the first computer-controlled machine tool .
This machine tool was no longer controlled by a human, but by a computer. In 1998, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld taught the MAS.863 course, entitled How To Make (Almost) Anything. In this course, at the renown MIT Media Lab, professor Gershenfeld wanted to teach students with a strong technical background to use massive and complex industrial machine tools to manufacture products. Much to his surprise, more than a hundred students registered for his course, many of whom had no technical knowledge – artists, architects, designers, etc. – but who were determined to take his course.
In an interview, professor Gershenfeld explained that “these students did not want to make products that you can buy in a store, but rather personalized products”.
In 2003, his team decided to invest in an awareness-building campaign, but instead of describing what they
were doing, they decided to provide the tools and material to encourage people to join in. They assembled a kit worth US$50,000 in equipment, and US$20,000 in material. These fabrication lab kits or, in other words, “fabulous laboratories” became known as the Fab Labs. These easy-to-use machines allowed anyone (or almost anyone) to use them, in order to produce anything (or almost anything).
In 2011, the Communautique created échoFab, the first Canadian MIT Fab Lab recognized by the Fab Foundation, under the supervision of MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld. échoFab is also a member of the International Association of Fab Labs.
Fab Labs play an important role in our society: participants can create multiple prototypes from the ideas they develop for business start-ups, for their personal interest, or to meet the needs of their community.
Fab Labs, however, present several types of challenges:
Material and human resources
- The prototypes usually require equipment designed for rapid prototyping: 3D printers, laser cutters, digitally-control machine tools, etc. A Fab Lab does not have all the equipment required to meet all the needs of the participants;
- One Fab Lab alone cannot have the human resources, with all the required skills, to advise participants in the development of their projects.
- A Fab Lab does not have all the information on the air quality within its premises, as the equipment used can generate emissions. Consequently, is the environment safe for the staff and participants?
- Several Fab Labs have no formal health and safety programs for the participants and employees.
Sharing of practices, management, development, and work
- New managers must often learn to manage a Fab Lab on their own;
- The development of Fab Labs is not standardized and therefore not optimal;
- Participants have little shared participation beyond the limits of the physical space: co-creation, co-design, etc.
Use of new technologies
A Smart Fab Labs network is an opportunity to learn the business within a “network”, using software and cooperative tools, as well as cloud computing, with all their advantages and disadvantages.
Smart Fab Labs Solutions
The Smart Fab Labs project will help develop solutions to meet the challenges that were identified:
- The Smart Fab Labs will have common basic amenities in all Smart Fab Labs, and specialized equipment in different locations. A system based on support and fair cooperation will be set up for these specialized facilities to be accessible to all;
- The skills and resources of each Smart Fab Lab will be described in the cloud database. Managing skills and resources will help ensure their maintenance and succession;
- Researchers from the ÉTS are developing an intelligent platform for air quality management, equipped with several sensors, to assess in real time the quality of the air inside Smart Fab Labs. A mobile application will allow managers to learn about the ambient air quality and to be notified when standards are not met. A series of measures will be proposed by the intelligent system to restore the air quality. Data will be analyzed and managed in the cloud, using intelligent algorithms to help managers maintain adequate air quality while managing associated costs;
- A health and safety program will be designed and proposed to the Smart Fab Labs. Monitoring of the program will be carried out by a committee to ensure adherence and its continuous improvement;
- Collaborative Innovation Research conducted at the ÉTS has shown that participants prefer to use cooperative tools and strategies available on the Internet, instead of using a collaborative platform. A series of strategies, tools, and innovation processes will be proposed by researchers to help participants innovate effectively through network co-designing;
- Managers of Smart Fab Labs will develop guidelines on best management practices, to be kept up to date by a committee. These guidelines will be available to network managers;
- The best practice guidelines will include recommendations for the development of a Smart Fab Lab and optimizing available space.
Launch of the Project
The échoFab Fab Lab will be converted into a Smart Fab Lab in the fall of 2016. Two new Smart Fab Labs will then be set up in the Montréal area.
Darine Ameyed is a postdoctoral associate researcher at the ÉTS Synchromedia Laboratory. She is also scientific project manager at CIRODD.
Program : Automated Manufacturing Engineering
Research chair : Canada Research Chair in Smart Sustainable Eco-Cloud
Research laboratories : SYNCHROMEDIA – Multimedia Communication in Telepresence