In 1948, John Parsons, president of The Parsons Corporation of Traverse City, Michigan, had a problem. He was competing for a contract to manufacture wings for military aircraft, each of which was made with hundreds of aluminum ribs modeled on complex parametric curves. Human error was unacceptable, production volumes were high, and computers of the day were the size of houses. So Parsons, along with one of his engineers, Frank Stulen, invented a whole new class of fabrication machines.
These new beasts – part robot, part familiar shop tool – were called NCs, for Numerical Control. IBM punch cards precisely directed a router head in three axes, carving aluminum billets into fighter jet wings and helicopter rotors. Over the next fifty years, the Parsons Corporation collaborated with MIT to refine the machines, eventually designing wholly software-controlled routers called CNCs. With the introduction of vector-based design software, and the network effects of the Internet, MIT researchers began to realize the potential of open-source fabrication labs.
In 2001, the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, which studies the intersections between the digital and the material worlds, started the first FabLab. Conceived as open-source community workshops, FabLabs make digital fabrication machinery available to the general public as a civic service. A franchise model helps each lab with start-up costs, grant-writing, and educational guidelines. Using wikis and forums, FabLabs around the world learn from one another’s mistakes and provide technical support. There are now 125 FabLabs across the globe, including one in Baltimore County.
The Baltimore FabLab has been around for two years, a well-kept secret tucked into the first floor of the Health Careers and Technology Building on the CCBC Campus in Catonsville. In the front of the room, a horseshoe of computers faces a projection screen humming with the silent webcast of other FabLabs around the world. Tucked against cinderblock walls are all the machines: a vinyl cutter, two laser cutters, four 3-D printers, and a CNC router with a full 4’ x 8’ cutting bed. In the center of the room is a cluster of worktables, scattered with copies of MAKE magazine and scraps of laser-cut acrylic.
I visited FabLab Baltimore twice in the last few weeks, taking their introductory instruction class the second visit. Offered every two weeks on a Monday night, the $99 workshop covers the hardware and software for every machine in the lab. Completion of the workshop – it comes with a sweet certificate – is a prerequisite for using the shop for your own projects. Once in the database, fabbers can come anytime during weekly open shop hours and use the machines on a first-come, first-serve basis. The laser cutters and CNC router cost $5 per use, while the vinyl cutter and 3-D printers are priced by the amount of material consumed.
All of the machines in the lab do one thing – translate computer models into physical parts. For the cutting machines, the process starts with a vector drawing made in Adobe Illustrator or AutoCAD. File preparation is key to a good result, so take care to close open lines, scale correctly, and nest multiple parts efficiently within a sheet. The laser and vinyl cutters have practically no kerf, or cut width, but the CNC router can be fitted with dozens of bits with a variety of widths. The CNC is also more versatile – it can drill holes, carve in relief, or cut parts out of full sheets of plywood. Each line in the drawing can be set to a different cutting depth, allowing for a variety of surface manipulations within the same piece.
3-D printers work off of .stl files exported from modeling software like SolidWorks or Rhino. Baltimore FabLab has three different brands of printer, the result of a start-up landscape that has lots of companies struggling to become dominant in the field. Afinia and Makerbot machines both use spools of low- grade PLA, a bio-plastic derived from cornstarch to make models about the size of a softball. The Stratsys uPrint uses a proprietary process for printing with two kinds of plastic – ABS and a soluble thermoplastic – to make complex parts such as ball bearings. Once printed, the part is immersed in a gentle acid bath that dissolves the thermoplastic, freeing the ball bearings to rotate in their housing.
As these technologies mature, fierce debates have arisen about the promise and peril of digital fabrication methods. Open-source repositories of designs, from houses to guns, promise to unleash a new era of democratized (and unregulated) fabrication. For the artist, the FabLab opens up whole new regions of possibility – cutting stencils, carving molds, printing scale models – that weren’t possible even five years ago. The FabLab model is a part of a larger sharing-economy trend, where capital-heavy investments are spread across a wide user base.
In Baltimore, other organizations – the Foundery, the Station North Tool Library, and Baltimore Print Studios – are also empowering artists and makers with affordable, open-access tools. Baltimore FabLab holds open studio hours Tuesday through Thursday, and is open Mondays and Fridays by appointment. Check the FabLab website for more information and upcoming class schedules.
* Author Will Holman grew up in Towson and studied architecture at Virginia Tech. Since then he has poured concrete, built cabinets, studied low-income housing, taught carpentry, and worked as a studio assistant. He recently returned to Baltimore to work as a Fellow for the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Find him on Twitter @objectguerilla. Views expressed in this article are his own.