The new fab lab isn’t just a collection of 3D printers and laser cutters—it’s a space that encourages originality and experimentation.
When Somerville High School students returned to class last fall, they were greeted by some pretty high-tech new classmates, including a laser engraver, a vinyl cutter and a host of 3D printers. A downstairs studio—formerly a vacant auto body shop—had been outfitted with some of the most cutting-edge fabrication technology there is.
This is Fabville, a “fab lab” that’s meant to support artistic exploration and experimentation as much as it is to teach tech skills. Over the last few months, students have printed and etched everything from keychains to chessboard pieces, designing vinyl stickers that read “Original Villen” or feature Bart Simpson’s face. One student is even building a guitar from scratch. And with each project that comes out of the lab, interest in it grows.
“Kids will see things that other freshmen have been making and be like, ‘Whoa, I want to make that, too!’” says Fabville Director and Advanced Manufacturing instructor Jeremy Shaw.
While the room is often populated by students in arts and engineering classes, Shaw says kids from all backgrounds put the space to use. The new lab gives them the opportunity to make school projects that are a bit more advanced than the puffy-painted posters and shoebox dioramas that many high school graduates turned in as a kid. By the time the academic year ends, close to 300 freshmen will have experienced the lab, and Shaw plans to eventually offer expanded open hours so even more students can check out the space.
“It’s different than doing a lab in a class, following step-by-step instructions,” Shaw explains. “Here, it’s more of a design engineering thing. It’s artistic, you’ve got that creativity, and kids—and people overall—engage with that so much more.”
Ben Sommer, an economic development specialist for the city of Somerville, says that the idea for Fabville had been bouncing around City Hall for about five years before becoming a reality. With a 2016 Urban Agenda grant from the state and some help from MIT’s Fab Foundation, a nonprofit that helps communities and institutions build labs of their own, the city was able to make it a reality.
You don’t have to be a student to take advantage of the makerspace. When the school day is done, Fabville Design Lab Experience Curator Joe Wight takes the helm. On weeknights, he oversees the shop as it opens up to the community at large—free of charge. People bring in their own projects and often take what Wight calls a “super introductory” class to learn the basics of taking a design from a computer to a 3D printer or laser cutter. The projects vary greatly; some people have laser-etched their own leather, while others have stenciled designs on picture frames. One dungeon master—science teacher Mike Maloney—has been making models for D&D campaigns in addition to teaching tools for his classes.
“A thing that’s nice about being at ground zero here, and building ourselves up, is being able to develop how we want to utilize these machines in a teaching environment,” Wight says. In February, he kicked off a series of events with the local nonprofit makerspace Parts and Crafts. He says the goal is to keep courses as “close to free” as possible. Most two-hour classes have cost $15 to $30, and Wight doesn’t want to see any that cost more than $50. “Accessibility is really important to us,” he adds, “making sure there isn’t any barrier to entry that’s financial.”
Eliminating barriers to entry is a core tenant of the Fabville mission, in fact. The lab is meant to be less intimidating and more manageable than other makerspaces, letting beginners learn the technology and scale up from there. Sommer explains that the lab will be an important component of economic growth in the city—he sees it as a way for people to learn important skills they’ll need for the tech and startup jobs that are coming to the area thanks to companies like Formlabs and iRobot. And Shaw hopes that in the future, people will learn to use the machines in order to start their own businesses, making 3D-printed jewelry they sell on Etsy, for example.
More machines will go online in the coming months, and Fabville’s curators are ramping up the after-hours offerings as well. Eventually, they’d like to have at least one evening class each week—but at the end of the day, it’s really about helping people make whatever they’re inspired to make.
“A lot of what we do is, someone shows up, and we just try to facilitate their needs,” Wight says.
“Somerville makes it easy to do something like this,” Sommer adds. “People are very engaged and willing to come out and support new initiatives that are a little outside the box.”
This story originally appeared in the March/April print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.