Fab Lab WA

Perth’s Challenger Institute of Technology will soon be cultivating the growing trend of technology-empowered DIY consumption with the imminent opening of Fab Lab WA.

One of an international network of open-source design and fabrication spaces run by the Fab Lab Foundation, the lab is equipped with tools including a 3D printer, 3D CAD design software, bandsaw and a large CNC cutter, and will provide training for Perth locals in how to design and fabricate anything from widgets to furniture.

Daniel Harmsworth

Fab Lab WA coordinator Daniel Harmsworth, who is a lecturer in applied engineering at Challenger, told The Fifth Estate one of the major sustainability impacts the labs had was helping people make locally, out of known materials, things that would probably otherwise be imported and lack lifecycle traceability.

The foundation operates out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and in other parts of the world including Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific region, the labs have become an important resource for communities.

Australia currently has two other Fab Labs, one at the Queensland Library, and one in Adelaide, which has currently suspended activities as it looks for a new space.

That’s only three labs for 27 million people, a major contrast to Iceland, for example, where there are seven active labs and a population of only 300,000.

“The best example is Barcelona, where the last Fab Lab conference was held. It has the aim of being an only data in and data out city, where everything is made locally,” Mr Harmsworth said.

So well-supported is the concept of tech-driven DIY in the city, the managers of the Fab Lab were elected to council and now have enormous influence on local public policy.

Mr Harmsworth said the labs encouraged resource stewardship, as the personal investment in design and fabrication meant people valued products more, and were therefore more likely to retain and continue to use it rather than toss it out and get another one.

He said there was also a link with the psyche of Western Australians, where the “can I get this locally or make it myself?” idea occurred earlier in the thinking process due to the distance of interstate or international imports.

“People think, why do I need to ship a little plastic widget from China?” he said.

“The reality is, you can’t keep buying cheap stuff forever from China. It’s simply not a sustainable business model – it is certain that their wages will go up and therefore so will the costs of things.”

In Adelaide, some of the lab users were using the CAD and 3D print capabilities to create small but essential replacement parts for items that would otherwise have needed to go to landfill due to one broken part.

The potential for “mass customisation” is teamed with the fact materials used in the labs are entirely traceable. In the case of CNC-made furniture, the maker brings in timber – potentially recycled or upcycled timber – and they therefore know where it is from. And the same applies to the feedstock for the 3D printer.

“That’s also part of what we teach students [at the Institute] is cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, and we stress to them the idea of taking account of everything you do,” Mr Harmsworth said.

The lab has already had a soft opening to students of the institute, who are able to use it for project work as part of the diplomas and advanced diplomas in applied engineering, particularly mechanical and electrical engineering.

Mr Harmsworth said students of the advanced diploma in mechanical and electrical engineering are set an assignment where they need to design and manufacture equipment to tight sustainability guidelines and within a strict budget, and the lab is open to them to use for prototyping.

The students of the diploma course have been tasked with designing and building a plastic recycling system that can manufacture feedstock for the 3D printer in the lab.

Currently the 3D printer uses an ABS plastic filament, which is a petrochemical derived plastic. Mr Harmsworth said that up to 70 per cent of this could be supplied by recycled polymer, but that a percentage of new plastic needed to be used as the recycled material has a short polymer chain.

He is also keen to see the feedstock change to a bioplastic, specifically PLA or polylactic acid plastic. This is a slightly less stable plastic in engineering terms, created from plant matter. It has a biodegradability advantage as it can be literally be composted at end of life and become a store of carbon in the soil.

Another upside, he said, is that PLA smells like “buttered popcorn” when used in a 3D printer, whereas ABS smells like “burnt plastic”.

“Biopolymers will grow in terms of use, particularly as petrochemicals can’t be used forever,” he said.

The public will be able to access the lab within the next couple of months. In the meantime, the plan is to extend its availability to students of other tertiary institutions. Mr Harmsworth would also like to see it engage with high school students.

He said that because the digital technology and digitally driven tools replace the need for trained manual skills on the part of makers, it becomes easier for anyone to experience the “real joy of how to go from design to prototype”.

“Making things that are bespoke, as the digital technology increases in capabilities, gets easier and easier – it’s not that technically challenging,” he said.

He said that world-wide, the types of projects users were commonly completing included not only widgets to replace broken parts, but also small household items with specific designs like hangers for unusual items, customised coat hooks, furniture and display cases for collections.

There have been people designing chairs with the aid of 3D imagers that are contoured specifically to their own contours, something Mr Harmsworth said illuminated the possibilities DIY-manufacture had for people with disabilities, where customisation becomes critical for comfort and safety.

“Sustainability is a big part [of what the lab is about] but it is meshed with a lot of other things, such as the sharing economy. It’s about improving quality of life,” he said.