FabLab: innovation with moderation

Would you fly on a plane that was designed and built in 1955? That’s right, one of those planes with a piston engine, the super-structure wings, and the wooden propeller that needs to be pushed to get it going. To be precise, this is an aircraft with a Lycoming O360 engine, the same one used for many aircraft today (the Robinson R22 helicopter, supplied to all flying schools, the Curtis Pitts Special acrobatic biplane and other tourism aircraft) and which has two different versions installed for its two engines. One turns clockwise, the other counter clockwise. If you wanted to buy a Robinson R22 today, it would be sold with this engine.

It seems like a paradox, but the same rule applies to this old engine as to good wine: it improves with age, as it becomes more reliable. Meanwhile, the average time between two major revisions has been reduced from 1500 to 2000 hours.

It is a much more common phenomenon than you think: any friend would tell you that it is better to buy a car with the internal combustion engine that hundreds of engineers have worked on and changed — to improve their original design and correcting defects, improving performance and adopting the latest technology discoveries — than to buy a recent hybrid vehicle.

Incremental or radical innovations

This example has led us to reflect on the concept of creativity, applied to the FabLab. Here, creativity means innovation, creating new mechanisms, taking new paths; it helps to think outside the box and reach conclusions that no one has ever reached before. As the saying goes: “a follower will never come first”. However, as often happens, makers perform leaps of faith towards radical innovations, projecting abstract and deeply innovative solutions.

The risk is of getting bogged down in the details. When building a prototype, remember to start out from tried and tested, effective and efficient projects that already exist. If we are dealing with the design, for which innovation is not an essential requirement, it is better to rely on ideas that have already been improved over time, using more than one resource.

Think about touchscreen technology: an example of radical innovation, sure, but not everyone knows that this technology, commercialised in the last 5–10 years, was already being trialled in the mid-1960s, when EA Johnson, a researcher at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern (United Kingdom), published an essay on it in Electronics Letters magazine, entitled: “Touch Display — A novel input/output device for computers”.

And let’s not forget to include those improvements, or adaptations, that bring gradual innovation and are no less important: an advanced Linux upgrade, a more powerful car, a faster and more efficient smartphone. Is it beginning to make sense?

A commendable example of ingenuity and perhaps also spirit of adaptation is Cuba, which, cut off from world trade and modern technology, has developed a strong culture of DIY engineers who transform household objects into useful inventions. Water driven pump engines drive bikes, dryers are transformed into coconut shredders, and cafeteria trays become antennas.

It is exactly this kind of FabLab contamination and lateral thinking that can lead to combining existing technologies, putting them together and creating a virtuous cycle: a breeding ground for methodology and exchange, critical thinking and networking of ideas. This is what innovation is all about: concentrating forces to get a better result, and doing better than you did before.