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What are these Fab Labs?

Fab Labs are community facilities in which regular people can use highly precise manufacturing and engineering equipment. These labs are located in a number of places around the world, mostly in communities of economic need.


For more information on the Fab Lab Project, see

To find out about the South Africa Fab Lab initiative, see



Yoo Hoo!

I just got in yesterday from Soshonguve, a township outside Johannesburg. Way outside Joburg. Not in my guide books. There weren't many white guys in the township during my stay. Like none, I think. People were very surprised when I piled in to the 16 passenger taxi with my bag and bumped along the road. Sometimes I wonder if they had ever had a white guy sitting in the taxi with them. They were universally nice to me, though a bit reserved.


We did have a few visitors who dropped by the lab, mostly unannounced delegations coming to see what the project was all about. It was funny, we would be working on projects and all the sudden there was this group standing there gearing up to ask a million questions. We answered as many as we could, then had a bunch of back and forth, then invited them to use the equipment, make some things. There are a lot of kids in and out of the lab. Outside the lab is a computer kiosk stuffed with computers running linux and loaded with some of the standard Ubuntu suite of software. The kids like to play games on the machines and it gathers a lot of kids through the day.


The staff at the lab consists of Nthabiseng, a young woman technical assistant, one of the few women working in the fab labs in South Africa, Andile a young man who lives right in the community, also a technical assistant and Khutso, the Lab Manager. They were incredibly smart and gracious. We talked about a million project ideas and possiblities. A lot of what we worked on was process, how to run a workshop on no notice when a group walked in, how to help people develop their ideas from concept in their head to physical object in their hands, naming of devices and supplies in the lab, electricity concepts and tested out a few workshops on bookmaking and designing with groups.


One group was design students from a university in Johannesburg, their project is to examine the Fab Lab project, and determine what they as design students could contribute in the way of solutions and projects. This semester's students will present their findings in report form, and they made a box out of laser cut cardboard that will press fit together. They wanted it to look like a pirate's chest with a curved top. We didn't give them the idea, we tried to work with what they wanted. We had hoped to get the whole thing out the door completed within an hour, but after two hours they left with pretty much all the parts they needed, then were planning to assemble it back at school. They were invited back to work on the project, and the students seemed to be receptive to return to the lab. The next semester students will work on projects that this group identifies in their process. Unfortunately I did not get their contact information, but I did give my details to them and hope they get back in touch with me.


The other group that came was representatives of a sister city project between the Netherlands and a township near Soshonguve. They are developing social systems for support of HIV-AIDS medical support. They are in the process of writing a manual for service delivery, they have made an early draft, and are in country now to refine it, then will finalize the system by the end of the year. They had a similar routine as the first group (but didn't have a video camera trained on us during the question and answer session). Some of the same questions, What is a fab lab? How are they funded? Who can use the Fab Lab? When are they open? What can you make in a lab? Do the users have to pay for the supplies? How can we start a lab in our community? What organizations support the fab lab and its network of labs? Where else in the world are these Fab Labs? They made a lasercut emblem for their project of perspex, which we know as plexiglass. Fortunately I had a copy of the magazine that used my photos of the Boston Fab Lab to illustrate an article for waag.org, a design organization from the Netherlands. They said they would get in touch with that organization, which also is interested in getting a Fab Lab in the Netherlands. They could even read both translations of the article. It was in the shape of a ribbon, and had the names of both communities on it. As with the first group, we went with their design idea and helped them to make it for themselves.


Liz is hoping that I will write more about Capetown, but that all seems so distant now. Three days and nights in the townships was a very powerful experience, and I have been resting up and reflecting a lot on what I have just done. There is so much to the whole dynamic event. Fortunately I was able to write a lot during my stay, and have a million pictures which I will post as I get to it. This computer seems to have a fairly decent connection and is available to me all day long. I have to get ready for teaching Brian's office staff how to create podcasts on Friday, so I will be doing some more research on that and updating my podcast with recordings made in South Africa, mostly in Capetown, as my mp3 player was maxxed out by the time I got to Sosh.


More later


Thanks for this. It's so good to hear about what everyone is up to. As a group we've been wanting to do some hello world projects for a long time. We do have a bunch of hello world projects for the electronics side already online, but not terribly public. Both Kenny and Jon want to develop some "Killer App" hello worlds this summer for both the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry opening and the South Bronx Opening. I'm sure that if we all worked together-- say each take a machine-- we could accomplish such a thing in somewhat short order.


On another front, what does Sosh need to get the Torchmate up and running? I have two extra boards in two spare part kits here. Is that what's holding things up? Also, would normal clamps work to hold down material? I thought we send clamps to them, but I could be wrong. Do they need just plain old hardware? A sacrificial board? Are they not able to access these things due to money or scarcity? Amy found the equivalent of a Home Depot in Pretoria which should carry most of what they sound like they need. If you can ascertain the problems and the solutions, maybe I can work from my end to help.


We love Sosh. Sounds like it has captured your heart as well. Can't wait to see your pics and interviews. Have a safe, fun trip.




Sherry Lassiter

Hey folks

Things are good here. We had a surprise visit from a group of university student from joburg yesterday. They had us all lined up and were asking questions and videotaping the whole thing. Quite something. Then they finished their questions and it turned into a mad design/build session. At the end of two hours they walked out the door with the parts for a box that they will use to present their findings to the university so that next year's class can help develop solutions for the lab here.


Today there are a few ideas cooking on 4x8. The torchmate is broken, and it doesn't look like it will run even after the control problem is addressed, I don't see quite how to attach the wood to the bed. Not a lot of tie down technique. At home, we just use sheetrock screws to hold it to the wooden bed. This only has the aluminum supports. They do have the laser, and cardboard, some 1x2 sheets of plywood...I am urging them to work to scale, 1/4 of the 2x4 or 1/16 of the 4x8 When they get the torchmate problems resolved they can scale up.


One of the issues I see is a need for a conscious use of the design process. I am trying to model it, and showing the value of hand drawings to get the idea out. Lists of possible problems, stuff like that. If there are too many problems in your head, you can't focus on the stuff you can actually do.


We were going to go to the innovation hub today, but that fell through. I will stay here today and tomorrow, departing sunday am. My wife and daughter made it to malawi, but all four of their bags went missing. They will probably arrive today, hopefully they will be intact. Last night I was at a casino (!) 800 rand is a bit rich for my taste, but I was able to treat Nthabiseng to breakfast. She remembers meeting all of you and asked for each of you by name. She has been a very helpful guide, bringing be around in the taxi system, and on a walkabout in the township. I have made many photos, and have seen lots of possiblities of things that they could design and make here to support community needs.


When we were out in the community, we met with a business owner who was having workers lay the foundation for a pub. He is planning on having a guest house built next. I told him that I would rather stay in his guest house. It would be great to be able to stay right near the lab so we could work longer, but it was a great experience riding the taxis.


Some of the needs are electricity generation, like cell phone charger, crank gnerator, shake flashlight, solar water heater, etc. There are kids outside on the computer kiosk all day long. It would be nice if they could do design work out there and have it save to the machines in either the computer lab or in here so they can be fabricated as needed. There is a young kid who really likes to play with scratch, and knows a bunch of how the tools work.


There is a strong car culture, lots of interest in modifying/pimping (her word) cars. The water system works pretty well. Electricity is not as consistent. Most of the houses in this immediate area have running water and a flush toilet outside the house. They wash clothes in a tub by hand and air dry. Even in the winter, the sun is strong.


Another idea that we have discussed is the need for the Hello Projects. This is a suite of projects that can be completed by a new user in an hour or less that can be carried out of the lab. The project would introduce the design process, particulars of the featured tool and some of the possiblities for further work. Ideally, we need at least one of these projects for each tool. Over time, there should be a menu of these quick projects that someone could pick from menu style, maybe four or five per machine. A further extension would be to have each Hello Project connect with another project on a different machine. Make something on the laser that can be combined with the Hello Project on the vinyl cutter that can be combined with the Hello Project on the Modela, etc. This would help when a group a dozen strong comes in to the lab like yesterday, they can all get to work, and not get bottlenecked on one tool. There was a lot of waiting for the laser.


I may be able to upload some photos, but there is only one computer with an internet connection, a cell based modem. No clue how fast the connection is, and I am reluctant to hog it.


There is so much more, but I want to get to work on a Hello Sign on the Design Process.



- 7-9-07

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