Adelaide’s creative industries continue to thrive due in large part to the strong sense of kinship and collaboration that exists in the city’s many creative hubs.
From the long-established Gray Street Workshop to the newly formed artist-run-initiative Fontanelle, these studios and galleries are vibrant breeding grounds for experimentation and innovation. That they are underscored by a strong sense of community goes a long way in guaranteeing their ongoing growth and the far-reaching success of many of their affiliated artists and designers. So when a new kid appears on the block that can benefit both hubs and practitioners alike it’s well worth standing up and paying attention.
This new kid goes by the name of Fab Lab Adelaide and it has been in operation since November 2012. Funded by the South Australian Government’s Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology (DFEEST) and managed by ANAT, it is housed in a modest-sized space of the Adelaide College of the Arts. In an exciting coup for Adelaide it is the first fabrication laboratory in Australia and as such belongs to an international network of over 100 fab labs, first founded in the US by Professor Neil Gershenfeld from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
As a free-access community workshop, Fab Lab Adelaide offers small businesses and individuals’ digital fabrication on a personal scale. “We’re still a model in development because we started from scratch,” explains ANAT and Fab Lab Adelaide manager Karen Marsh. “But it’s a model that can be replicated throughout Australia.” DFEEST’s initial funding is for six months only and so achieving long term sustainability is the current business goal. The provision of opportunities for local creative communities, however, has been in place from day one.
Fab Lab Adelaide’s available resources include a laser cutter, milling machine, vinyl cutter and a selection of 3D printers – the 3D Touch, UP! and three MakerBot Thing-O-Matics. These printers are extrusion types that use fused deposition modelling (FDM) to create a three-dimensional object from a digital model, which involves plastic being melted via a motorised mechanism and then laid down in successive layers. The technology behind these 3D printers is impressive and is made all the more expedient by their free and open source software (FOSS). “This means that their source code is made open and freely available,” says Marsh. “And therefore people from all over the world can contribute to enhancing and evolving the printers’ functionality.”
Designers that use Fab Lab Adelaide’s 3D printers are able to rapid prototype small-scale objects and parts at a much faster rate and with much less expense. Whereas once upon a time prototyping was handmade by a manufacturer who charged accordingly, designers are now able to do it themselves using 3D printers that are the size of desktop printers. For designers this basically removes the often lengthy and costly production process and allows them greater scope for experimentation. It’s an incredibly appealing proposition that not only has the potential to change the face of the manufacturing industry, but that places more emphasis on the designer’s actual creative process. With the possibility for numerous iterations and countless revisions, the romantic notion that there is increased freedom during the creative process translates practically into an extended trial and error period, which although necessary was often considered a luxury curtailed by both time and cost.
The FDM technology utilised by Fab Lab Adelaide’s 3D printers may give the printed object’s form relatively good definition, but the result is quite crude. Designers will still need to send their prototypes elsewhere for final manufacturing, which often takes place offshore. Retaining at least part of the manufacturing process onshore, however, will still prove to be cost effective.
It may very well only be a matter of time before 3D printing technology evolves to include rapid manufacturing, so that the final manufacture of small-scale objects and small parts also rests with the designer. Architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars of Amsterdam-based architecture practice Universe Architecture recently announced plans to construct an entire house using a 3D printer. The D-Shape can produce sections measuring up to 6 x 9 metres in size and the house, with a proposed completion date of 2014, is in the form of a Mobius strip. In this respect 3D printing may very well have implications for the construction industry as well.
Fab Lab Adelaide might not have the capacity for the scale of construction made possible by the D-Shape, but what remains its most valuable asset is its accessibility. Designers, artists, hobbyists, small businesses and students alike can benefit from the technologies on offer. And, in fact, what defines the global Fab Lab network is an ethos of sharing and collaboration. It lends any Fab Lab in the world creative strength at a grassroots level and for Adelaide; this means the potential for further experimentation and innovation amongst its many creative hubs and practitioners.