Makerspaces, Fab Labs and What Not
Do we really need one in Nigeria?
Maker/Hackerspaces and fablabs have come to be the places where hardware is prototyped all over the world. Places like these help rookies learn and help startups reduce development cost to prototype.
By definition alone, makerspaces are open spaces for people of all skillsets to work on hardware. With a 3D printer and an Arduino you can start a makerspace. The objective is to get people to make stuff by hacking together different components. Hackerspaces are the same thing, but promote re-use of components from other sources, like getting a transformer from an old machine to work on an inverter project.
Fablabs (fabrication labs) are more advanced than this. The idea is to make a demo-ready prototype of what you hacked together in the makerspace. Thus, fablabs have more advanced equipments: laser cutters, milling machines, CNC routers. Most fablabs are also part of MIT’s network, which means they have some kind of requirements in tooling.
But there is a thin line between both classifications.
Fablabs have to keep to the MIT charter and keep a certain logo. So most labs refrain from this and instead call themselves makerspaces. In the pictures above, that lab has a lathe, 3D printers, milling machines, a laser cutter and vinyl router, a soldering station and too many components.
But it is called a makerspace. Another reason for this is because of the model it uses in operation: members pay $50 per month, they get a key to the space and can use any equipment they want — rookie or badass. At the heart, it is a communal space for making anything.
Over the last two and a half years, there has been plenty talk of opening one makerspace or the other in Nigeria. GE Garages opened in the summer of 2014 and was only open (free of charge) for a month; that was the first time I saw a 3D printer physically in operation. After that the garage closed and was opened after some time to run a programme for hardware entrepreneurs. I applied and did not get in. Since then, it has been closed to the public but recently they opened applications for the same programme again. I do not think there is much value to the community that a space equipped like this is only open to select people and at select times.
I have heard of another organization actively trying to open one having gotten funding from MIT’s International Development Innovation Network. For all our sakes, I hope they succeed. But going all out and opening an outfit like TechShop may not be the way to go, those machines cost money and require know-how to manipulate.
The last group of people really interested in opening one have been deliberating on a model to run to keep the space sustainable.
One thing about Nigeria is we have not developed an experimenting culture. In university, we has desktop CNC and radial cutting mills (about 4) donated to the school and fit in a ‘Mechatronics’ lab. We were never allowed near the tools because we did not know how to use them (and they thought if we got near them, we would damage the equipment). Worse still, the technologists could not understand the manuals so the tools sat there unused. They probably still are. And we, who they were gotten for never got to use them.
Another time, NLNG donated a lab to my alma mater. By this time I had graduated but a friend and I drove there to check it out. We could see it was for robotics and had sensors mapped out for different things. One entering, we were asked to exit and get a letter from the Dean to even see the tools.
Experimenting is at the heart of making. Being hardware, we have to break things and fix them back together again.
If you’re thinking of opening a makerspace in Nigeria, I have some thoughts:
- Make it open to everyone. If people want to work there for one day, it can be free the first day. Then, have daily, weekly or monthly rates.
- Don’t think of buying all the prototyping machines possible. Start with a couple of 3D printers, a dozen Arduinos and a soldering station. Most of the people active in hardware in Nigeria already have their tools, a makerspace should focus on the rookies and add machines as the members require/grow in numbers and skill.
- Offer classes and tool training. In CAD, Robotics, Machining, PCB assembly and the likes. Do this before you allow the space members use the tools, this way everyone is proficient.
- Hire artisans. They are the real makers, forget their lack of structure.
And to answer the question in the title: yes, we need a number of makerspaces/fablabs in Nigeria. Why?
- To meet hardware co-founders.
- To develop skill and try out new projects. Often with other people; a makerspace is not a hub where you drink coffee and mind your business.
- To make our own tools. This point is very key because 3D printers, CNC mills can be made from metals and old laser printer equipment, this cuts down the price of buying a new one. Also, many new tools that are pushing the boundaries of how people make were first hacked together at makerspaces.
- To ‘win’ prizes. In many places, one of the prizes of hardware competitions are subscriptions at makerspaces/fablabs. If a Nigerian company got to one right now, there would be no place to redeem that prize.
- To have early adopters of your product. This is another thing we lack very much in Nigeria: people who understand your product, give you honest critique and because you developed it with them have a sense of ownership with your product.