Public libraries are chock full of books, DVDs and music; community tool sheds fill their shelves with power drills, circular saws and ladders so that individuals don’t have to buy their own. Tucked away on North Capitol Street (map) behind an unassuming facade is a space that hopes to serve a similar purpose for those DC residents interested in digital fabrication and rapid prototyping.
Fab Lab DC is slowly stocking up with 3D printers, laser cutters, soldering irons and vinyl cutters in the hopes of attracting artists, engineers and scientists with creative dreams. The goal is that the space, and the aforementioned fabrication and prototyping tools, can help those with an idea see if their plan will actually fit together and work, and give them a chance to make iteration after iteration until it does.
So what is Fab Lab? Several years ago, MIT received funding from the National Science Foundation to create the original fabrication laboratory or Fab Lab, which, in essence, is a workshop space with shared state-of-the-art prototyping tools.
Phyllis Klein, founder of Fab Lab DC, tells us that since then, 150 more outposts of varying size have opened up around the world, all connected to the larger network. Klein has owned the space where Fab Lab DC is located since the 80s; a serendipitous meeting with someone connected to MIT’s Fab Lab led her to the idea to start the DC lab, which is set up as a non-profit.
To be sure, the lab is in the very nascent stages; an initial grant from DC’s Awesome Foundation helped get them on their feet, and Klein and other volunteers are currently seeking more funding, be it through grants or a Kickstarter campaign. With the money, they hope to buy more equipment, like a laser cutter (they are currently renting one) and something called a ShopBot, a $20,000 router with the ability to fabricate in a range of materials from wood to plastic to aluminum. Until Fab Lab gets these machines, it will be difficult for serious architects and engineers to complete their projects.
Still, Fab Lab is open, and Klein is hoping to build a community of folks interested in the space. Right now, prototypers can visit by appointment, and Klein told us that open studio hours may appear on the schedule soon. In the meantime, she has turned the second floor of the building into an event space and filled the fall schedule with events and workshops hosted by artists, crafters, architects and entrepreneurs. A few upcoming things on the calendar include a presentation by architect Greg Upwall on green architecture, passive solar, and prefab projects and a weekend workshop all about Arduino, an open-source microcontroller (a computer than can fit in the palm of your hand).
Like many other outposts, Fab Lab DC also hopes to eventually include outreach to underserved communities, bringing in lower-income students with afterschool programs to familiarize them with various technologies and possibly finding employment opportunities for out-of-work neighbors.
DC’s start-up and tech scene has been gaining traction over the last few years. While Fab Lab DC currently seems like more potential than reality, if it is able to become what they hope, it could be of great use to DC’s burgeoning tech community.