Fab Academy

From January to June 2018, I took part in Fab Academy, the globally-distrubuted learning programme of the Fablab network.  I was based at the new Fablab at the University of Brighton, and one of 220 students from 45 countries, in 65 Fablabs around the world, learning ‘how to make (almost) anything’.

Over 5 months, I learned about all aspects of digital fabrication: machines, materials and processes; design, coding and fabrication; documentation and workflow. It was hands-on, but also intellectually taxing. One minute, we were mixing resin, the next poring over a microcontroller data sheet.

As well as learning the syllabus of the course, I also learned how to learn; how to get stuff done under immense time pressure; how to solve intractable problems; how to share with and learn from my colleagues; how to prototype; and how to document my work, and make it replicable.

Fab Academy is structured around 20 weekly lectures and assignments, each focusing on a different aspect of making. There’s a strong focus on electronics and software, with about half the course covering electronics design, production and programming. As a relative newcomer, this was a steep learning curve for me, but with help from some experts, I was able to get to grips with programming in a way that I’ve never been able to before.

I tried to make a list of all the things I learned, to give a sense of the breadth of the course.

Machines and tools

  • Desktop CNC milling machine (for mould-making and circuit board fabrication)
  • Flatbed CNC mill (for wood)
  • Laser cutter
  • 3D printer
  • Vinyl cutter
  • Oscilloscope

Processes

  • Laser-cutting press-fit assemblies and chassis in plastic and wood
  • Milling pre-molds from modelling wax
  • Casting with silicon and resins
  • Milling sheet aluminium for folding
  • Milling copper circuit boards
  • SMD soldering (by hand)
  • Electronics design and production
  • Making composite materials

Software tools

  • 2D CAD in Illustrator
  • 3D (parametric) CAD in Fusion 360
  • Circuit design in Eagle

Coding

  • Arduino for hardware control
  • Processing for visualisation on the desktop
  • Communicating between devices with I2C, SPI and plain vanilla serial
  • Embedded programming with AVR chips (mostly ATMega32u4)

Documentation and workflow

  • Jekyll and markdown for static site generation
  • Git for version control and website deployment
  • Video editing

There are several places you can go to find out more:

Many thanks to Kelly Snook and the University of Brighton for the incredible opportunity, the Fablab network for developing Fab Academy, and all the tutors, gurus and assessors for making it work; Daniele Ingrassia for helping me out of some tight spots; the Fablab Brighton crew for the fun times; and most of all Luiz H H Bueno, our stellar instructor, without whom this would not have been possible.