If you know Sarah Boisvert, you undoubtedly know her lime-green earrings. The translucent 3-D-printed cubes dangle from her ears daily, on double duty as a conversation piece and a fashion statement. She describes the several attempts it took to get the thickness of the plastic just right so the earrings weren't opaque, creating models on a computer and then printing prototypes until they were perfect. However, these earrings hardly betray the depth of Boisvert's 30-plus years of experience in digital fabrication and design, which culminates most recently in the opening of Fab Lab Santa Fe at the Santa Fe Community College.
What is a Fab Lab? Essentially, it's a workshop and training space where virtually anything can be manufactured with the aid of computer-controlled machines. The concept was developed and piloted at MIT early this century, and Boisvert has been involved since that beginning. She started Fab Lab Hub (fablabhub.org) in 1999 as a part of the MIT Fab Lab network to promote
entrepreneurship, workforce training, and support the development of such facilities. Fab Lab Hub currently operates two in Santa Fe: One at the Santa Fe Business Incubator is called Archimedes, and the one at the community college is known simply as Fab Lab Santa Fe.
All Fab Labs must have at least five requisite pieces of fabrication technology, including a 3-D printer, computer-
numerical controlled machines with computer-aided design software, and a digital electronics design station. The network estimates about 1,200 such labs open to communities worldwide, bringing skills and technology to areas that would otherwise not have it. "It's a real democratization of technology," Boisvert says.
Fab Lab Santa Fe is distinct from a makerspace, however. The primary role is technical education and community engagement, meaning not anyone can just walk in and start using the laser cutter. Rather, people can sign up for public courses on particular machines and techniques, at the end receiving a credential called a "digital badge" which is stored online as a proof of competency that can be taken to other Fab Labs. Further, after completing training, students can apply for paid internships with the Fab Lab to work on manufacturing projects for local businesses.
While on my tour of Santa Fe's newest version (at the Santa Fe Community College, 6401 Richards Ave., 428-1676) with Boisvert, I had the pleasure of meeting gemologist Andrew Harris at work with a 3-D printer, designing ring casts that would later be turned into metal and set with a jewel. The ease and speed of producing prototypes on a 3-D printer enables the high refinement of a process called iterative design; Harris is able to produce several molds of different designs over the course of a few hours, making minor adjustments or major style changes with each new iteration of the design. Gemologists working in traditional wax cast molding might take weeks on a single piece, zeroing in on the measurements and decoration, and Harris has tread in both waters. "Digital fabrication has huge advantages over traditional methods," he tells SFR.
There is little chance of making a mistake in transferring the idea from the mind to material reality, because a precise representation of the object to be printed is first created on the computer. I asked Harris and Boisvert if anything was lost in this process compared to manual techniques. Undoubtedly, the experience of the craftsperson is changed. But digital fabrication, in Boisvert's opinion, can actually amplify the creative process. "Creativity is in the heart and brain," she says. "How it manifests itself, whether from the hands or the computer, it comes from the same place."
Fab Labs enable almost immediate implementation of life-changing technologies in response to local needs. A microfluidic processor is an intricate electronic device that releases very small amounts of fluid into a system, used in medical treatments and chemistry research. When a local organization required working prototypes of these devices for a project, they didn't have to search far: Fab Lab Santa Fe made it happen. But the Fab Lab also produces things that aren't so technologically advanced, such as furniture and musical instruments, simply because it is quick and easy to produce the exact design intended when workers are equipped with the proper skills.
The importance of the Fab Lab extends much farther than the potential opportunities for creatives as well. The bulk of Boisvert's recent work has been poured into a book of research on the economic importance of these new manufacturing technologies. Titled The New Collar Workforce, the book surveys the skill sets needed most by more than 200 national and local corporations in order to stay competitive in the emerging digital economy. and notes a desperate need for workers who are competent in using the exact technologies that the Fab Lab trains people to use.
"Santa Fe is perfect for this kind of thing—it's a creative hub," Camilla Bustamante, dean of the School of Trades, Technology, Sustainability, Professional Studies and Business and Education at the college, says. Her department has enthusiastically welcomed the partnership with Fab Lab Hub to expand its manufacturing education. Bustamante is already able to boast of strong solar energy, welding and automotive mechanics programs under her purview, with students often able to land jobs immediately after completing their degree or certificate.
To Bustamante, the Fab Lab complements SFCC's strength in technical education by emphasizing the role of entrepreneurship, innovation and teamwork in creating a successful future–not just for individual students, but for Northern New Mexico as a whole. "Nobody else around is really doing training like this," she says. "The future breed of manufacturers is being educated right here."