Melbourne's New DIY Makerspace
Words by Melissa Howard
Images courtesy of FAB9
Melbourne’s newest Makerspace opens to the public in February 2019. Inside the Dream Factory in Footscray, FAB9 will provide a purpose-built space housing high-end prototyping and manufacturing equipment that, for a monthly fee, anyone can access in order to design and make physical objects.
So, what are Makerspaces? Well, they’re not just physical spaces that democratise technology. Their true power is in their mental, emotional and connective element. They are essentially ideas factories that connect thinkers and artists, support and empower inventors, and generate innovation. “Embrace failure, share learning,” encourages rolling text on FAB9’s website. “Experiment, iterate, evolve, repeat.”
Admittedly, with construction still underway at FAB9, when Matters visits the space looks less like an ideas factory and more like a normal factory: vast concrete floors covered in sawdust with tradies operating screeching saws.
In one area is a partially built fixed-wing drone the size of a small boat. The man building it, says Ying Zhang, FAB9’s creative director, is desperate for FAB9 to open. He’s bursting with ideas, and has been trying to get stuff prototyped all over Melbourne. But that’s the thing, says Zhang. It’s near impossible to get things prototyped in Melbourne. Innovators end up on a wild goose chase around the city, begging manufacturers to borrow their machines to create different elements of their inventions, or, they can pay through the teeth to have the prototyping outsourced — making it out of the range of the typical inventor. The guy building the drone is “the sort of person we want to help,” says Zhang.
This is what that help will look like: a vast, gleaming room, futuristic and bright, with designated labs spaced in an arc. There will be an electronics lab — “You’ll need those sort of electronic instruments if you’re going to build and test stuff,” says Zhang — but it’s the digital fabrication area that will get innovators hot under their lab-coats.
This is where, amongst many other machines, the laser cutters and two 3D printers will be. One is a rudimentary 3D printer, that prints in FDM — a type of plastic. The other is higher res and prints in resin at a fully functional prototypical quality.
“But it’s the CNC router that all the professionals want to use,” says Zhang. While 3D printers create an object from thin air, the CNC Router is subtractive — that is, it manufactures 3D objects by intricately and successively cutting material away from a solid block of 3D material.
There will also be a timber shop, a metal workshop and the assembly area, where all the parts of the inventions will be assembled.
Forgive my bluntness, I say, looking at all the high-end machines FAB9 have agonisingly chosen, but this can’t come cheap. Who is supporting this multimillion dollar endeavour?
The answer to that is linked to the narrative of how Makerspaces — and FAB9 — came to be. It starts with a man called Evan Malone, an American who has studied physics, systems engineering, robotics and is one of the founders of 3D printing.
As part of his PhD, Malone developed Fab@Home — “a low-cost, open-source version” of the machines he was using in his lab — which allows anyone to build a 3D printer that can print with “almost any kind of material, and even combine materials”. Fab@Home is now used all around the world, including in medical research to print living tissue and in Africa where “they are a public service” for free or minimal cost: allowing “people to solve problems that there aren’t solutions for”.
“Experiment, iterate, evolve, repeat.”
Driven by his love for making things with others and using technology to empower others, Malone established the first Makerspace, NextFab — "a gym for innovators" — in the US in 2010. He now runs three. Malone sees Makerspaces as a way for us to navigate the rapid changes in our manufacturing culture, and make manufacturing “part of our blood again".
The next string of the story involves Hans Chang, the CEO and main driver of FAB9. Chang, also a passionate tech-head, left the cool coasts of Wellington for the US where he worked in Silicon Valley for four years. Here, “I discovered the maker movement,” said Chang. “I thought, hey, you know, I could do something like this.” He decided on Melbourne and, after a lot of work and a spectacular amount of red-tape wrangling, he managed to secure a $650,000 round one grant from LaunchVic — a new Victorian government initiative designed to support the start-up ecosystem in Victoria.
This is where Malone returns to the story. Hans reached out to Malone who was passionate about Hans’ idea to establish a Makerspace in Australia, and was convinced to invest his money in the project. He is now the main stakeholder in FAB9.
So, construction is well underway, the machines are ordered — what’s the next step? “We wanna open with a bang!” says Zhang. After they open their doors in February 2019 the team wants to grow the space. More machines, more 3D printers — and a robot! “If we get bigger, if we’re a huge success — we’ll get a robot arm,” laughs Zhang. “We all want a robot arm!” The FAB9 team dream of getting a six-axis robotic arm that can be programmed for precise automatic manufacturing. “We’re like, where would the robot go?”