A Community Fab Lab: Introductions to Making

July 19, 2013, 08:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents F


Digital technology is revolutionizing both the study of Humanities and the practices of “humanistic” disciplines (Schreibman, Siemens et al. 2004), enabling new forms of creative and scholarly communities (e.g. HASTAC (HASTAC 2013), The Pool (New Media Collective 2013), (Gauntlett 2011)) and new forms of expression (e.g. (Craig 2013; Latulipe, Wilson et al. 2010; Schiphorst 2009; Sherman and Craig 2003; Smith 2011)). Furthermore, as more digital technologies become ubiquitous, humanistic practices are reintegrating the living culture of contemporary life in many ways, including syntheses such as “ArtScience” (Edwards 2008), “Alternative Reality” (McGonigal 2011), and “Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn” (PBworks 2013). This paper considers one example of such reintegration in progress, a local community-based Fab Lab, in which we are developing an approach to fostering collaboration and creativity.

Digital Fabrication Technology

In recent years, digital fabrication technology has become widely available at moderate prices, opening the era of personal fabrication (Anderson 2012; Gershenfeld 2005; Mota 2011; Rischau 2011). Personal fabrication technology is seen as revolutionary; potentially reordering the manufacturing economy and changing the relationship between designer, producer and consumer (Anderson 2012; Gauntlett 2011; Johnson 2010; Rischau 2011). From the perspective of a humanist, this technology can be viewed as transforming creativity and — literally — putting tools in the hands of workers; by empowering every individual to fabricate whatever he or she desires, provided he or she learns how to do so.

Digital Fabrication technology crosses the boundaries between physical and virtual worlds, and this crossing is decisive. Once something (in this case, the design for making an artifact) is digitized, it becomes possible not only to manipulate it, but also to mix, remix, sell, and share it. Just as digital music and video have become universally available, nearly for free, uploaded as well as consumed; the ability to design and make things will be universally shareable.

The availability of low-cost digital fabrication technology has led to the emergence of a variety of community-based social spaces, including Fab Labs affiliated with MIT (FabWiki 2013), independent Maker Spaces (HackerspaceWiki 2013), and similar groups (e.g. (BioCurious 2013)). These spaces deploy low-cost digital design and fabrication techniques in small, community-based workshops featuring an empowering and creative “do it yourself” ethos within a supportive, diverse, and multidisciplinary setting. Digital technology can enhance and magnify long existing creative drives because knowledge can be shared in a very direct way: knowledge (i.e., designs) can be uploaded and then downloaded and “executed” (e.g. from Shapeways (Shapeways 2013), Thingiverse (Makerbot Industries 2013) or Instructables (Instructables 2013)), thereby directly connecting local labs, businesses, and individuals world wide (Anderson 2012; Gauntlett 2011; Gershenfeld 2005).

A Local Community Fab Lab

The Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL), located on the University of Illinois Urbana campus, is a volunteer-operated, open community of people who like to design and make things (CUCFL 2013; Ginger, McGrath et al. 2012; Watson 2011). The CUCFL makes available to the local community resources, including skilled volunteers, computers, computer-controlled machines, and electronics assembly tools. These high tech tools, and an open, informal environment, make it possible for people of all ages and skill levels to learn to imagine, design, and build.

The CUCFL is affiliated with the International Fab Lab Network that originated at MIT (FabFolk 2013). The more than 140 member labs around the world are operated independently, sharing and cooperating through standards and a common vision (FabWiki 2013). In addition to the MIT affiliated Fab Labs, hundreds of independent “Maker Spaces” and “Hacker Spaces”, which provide similar creative environments (HackerspaceWiki 2013). These spaces form a large, informal, global community of makers, who share a plethora of information and enthusiasm via the Internet.

Who Does What in the CUCFL

The CUCFL has built a community of people with a range of expertise and a desire to share; volunteers who love to learn how to make things, and who love to share their knowledge with others. On any given day you may find kids and parents, University students and staff, artisans, entrepreneurs, school teachers, and retirees; working side by side on projects of their own design; learning and teaching.

An important goal of the CUCFL is to provide an environment in which everyone, including young women and kids from underserved communities, can imagine, make, and share; learn and, in turn, become a teacher. The CUCFL serves kids from youth groups, schools, and home school groups, as well as hobbyists, handicrafters, inventors developing prototypes of new products, and artists exploring and fabricating new creations.

In keeping with a humanistic spirit, many projects develop collaboratively in the lab, through free-wheeling discussion, experimentation, and iteration, which can produce eclectic explorations of academic, technological, and artistic concepts (e.g. (McGrath, Rischau et al. 2012)). The CUCFL hosts workshops and design sessions, such as a one-day “Fab Off”, attended by participants from other Fab Labs in the region (CUCFL 2011). Several founders of the CUCFL have graduated University and founded a local design and prototyping company (The Product Manufactory 2013).

How We Introduce People to Making

We work hard to make the CUCFL something you “do”, not something you “watch,” therefore, one of the most important activities is inviting new users to begin making. Many first time visitors find a Fab Lab to be an alien environment; with an exciting but daunting array of high tech tools. And, at first, many people have little notion of what can be done, and might imagine that they are incapable of creating their own designs.

Introductory sessions consist of an introduction to the lab, followed by a hands-on project tutored by experienced volunteers. Based on the principle of “show, don’t tell”, the novice has the opportunity to, and is strongly encouraged to, design and make a simple object, such as a personalized key ring or sticker — to actually go through the process of making something on the first day. These objects are insignificant in themselves, but are highly meaningful because of who made them and how: the experience of making is simultaneously empowering and an encouraging introduction into our (humanistic) community of makers.

The "Fab Lab to Lab Fab" Initiative

In 2011, the global Fab Lab initiative proposed a challenge to see if labs could be created according to the power of ten; if and how labs might be created at a series of scales, roughly designated by levels of cash outlay: $100, $1000, $10,000, etc. In effect, this extends the Global Fab Lab Network with another layer of “capillaries”. Inspired by this challenge, the CUCFL, in collaboration with the Center for Digital Inclusion of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, is creating a network of mini labs in a variety of local venues targeted at students from 8 to 18 years of age, including school classrooms, public libraries and dedicated clubhouse/community centers (Ginger, McGrath et al., 2012).

The CUCFL and the collaborative sites have a mutual set of responsibilities. The mini labs commit to use their resources in the promotion and development of skills and capabilities that align with the Fab Lab mission: personal growth, economic development and cross-cultural understanding. In return, each local mini lab receives a starter set of equipment and supplies that will enable the people at that site to create a variety of objects of their own design. The main CUCFL provides training, assistance and materials, including tutorials and starter project kits, and, as users develop skills, they will be able to use the larger capabilities of the main lab.


Fab Labs provide technology within a local, informal community of knowledge, to encourage and enable innovation and creativity by the people who work in or in cooperation with the labs, and, we believe, enabling personal growth, economic development and cross-cultural understanding. The Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab is one such lab, where we are exploring how to create and sustain a community of learners and makers, with deep local roots, and wide global connections.

These technologically enabled networks of local workshops represent an important trend in the contemporary practices of humanism, (re-)integrating art, design, engineering, and entrepreneurship, and crossing the boundaries between physical and virtual creativity, through social interaction, and knowledge sharing. Beyond the technical and economic implications, these technologies can have profound and exciting psychological and cultural effects. It is thrilling when a kid’s face lights up and he or she holds up an object and says, possibly for the first time in their life, “I made this”. And that is only the beginning — the kids inevitably teach other kids (and adults).


Thanks to Betty J. Barrett, Jeff Ginger, and Peter Organisciak for reading and discussing the drafts of this paper. Thanks to all the volunteers and community partners who make the CUCFL possible.


This work was partly supported by the Office of the Provost, Office of Public Engagement, and the Center for Digital Inclusion of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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