I’ve known about the Fab Lab in Ellesmere Port for some time now but never visited it. I was reminded about the Lab by a client who went there to build a prototype of his invention. Dr. David Armson, Fab Lab Manager, gave an inspiring talk at the Halton Science and Manufacturing Sector Network in June which finally persuaded me to arrange a visit.
The Fab Lab in Ellesmere Port is on the High Street among small shops and takeaway restaurants. At first it seems an unlikely location for high tech manufacturing. As I heard more about the Lab though, it began to make more sense.
Fab Labs were an idea of Professor Neil Gershenfeld at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Fab Labs are digital fabrication laboratories set up to inspire people to turn their ideas into new products by giving them access to a range of advanced digital manufacturing technology. The Labs also provide free access to software and previous user created designs that can be replicated or improved upon.
Fab Labs help creative, innovative people realise their ideas quickly and cheaply as it can be expensive and difficult to prototype products through traditional, existing manufacturing routes. As the Lab has various machines, from 3D printers to laser cutters, it is possible to provide more affordable solutions to businesses and small independents at a low cost.
It’s not just about making prototyping affordable, it’s also about mass manufacturing losing the economic advantage and on-demand, bespoke manufacturing becoming affordable and even possible. David called it “the next industrial revolution” as traditional manufacturing won’t be our next economic expansion. Being smarter and more innovative in how we manufacture using digital manufacturing equipment will give us the much needed differentiation.
David gave me some great examples. The cost of producing a plastic bottle that fell from £700 to £70 and the prototyping of the Nifty MiniDrive (an external storage drive for the Apple Mac that doesn’t destroy the sleek lines of the computer). The Nifty MiniDrive is manufactured in China – possibly illustrating a point.
The Ellesmere Port Fab Lab is about something else too. It’s about engagement, purpose and local accessibility to something truly quite special.