Moving in to Fab Lab Tuyuryaq

Sunrise on Bristol Bay in Togiak, Alaska

Hackerspaces and FabLabs get started in lots of different ways. Often it’s a group of friends that already have a lot of tools and decide to rent a space to pool their resources. Others are built into institutions, like universities and libraries.

Fab Lab Tuyuryaq (that’s the Yu’pik spelling of Togiak) has a more peculiar start: it’s one of a few labs around the world that was established out of an NSF grant as the result of a research proposal. I wasn’t around for the years of coordination since a 2010 FabLab demonstration at a convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives. It was the meeting of minds between tribal council members of Togiak, and people from the University of Alaska and University of Illinois that got the ball rolling on a grant proposal that would finally get funding in 2014. I was asked to take the lead on ordering the equipment and materials to fully stock a lab within our budget and finally to fly out and unbox, assemble, and test all the equipment.

After flying from Chicago to Anchorage on a 737, I took a little Saab 340 turboprop where they hand out earplugs instead of snacks for the 90 minute trip to Dillingham, and finally, one of the daily cargo planes took me over the Alaskan marshes to Togiak. I got to peak over the pilot’s shoulder on that one. Just me and a bunch of Amazon Prime packages in the back.

The space was perfect for the lab: the backbone of a traditional canoe hung from the ceiling, and the building was situatued in the middle of downtown, right between the post office and the general store. At first it was packed full with dozens of boxes large and small that had been shipped over the past few months, but over the course of the first week it took the shape of a computer lab. Local handymen built sturdy hardwood tables and stools, and other furniture was rummaged from the local ‘Office Depot’ — an abandoned school down the street that was full of tables and chairs and other office supplies, open for the picking if you’re friends with the mayor.

Before it was a FabLab, this space was occupied by the local Boys and Girls club, so groups of kids knew it well and would knock on the doors after school. Though it was often a nuisance to supervise a bustling building of middle schoolers, I was glad to teach them how to use the sticker cutters and 3D printers — they showed up almost every day wanting to make something and I’m not the kind of person that says ‘no’ to people who want to learn.

But sometimes they were interrupting and just wanting to play games. Once when it was getting out of hand, a young girl noticed that I wasn’t as bossy as I was 5 minutes ago, and she hypothesized, “You’re one of those people that just gets quiet when you’re upset, huh?” And I nodded my head yes and she decided to take over for me and raised her voice to tell people to clean up after themselves. Keep taking command, Piccola!

Another night, I finally met some of the older kids that were going to high school there. They were quiet, but picked up skills really quickly. It was crowded when it was getting close to curfew, and a police officer stopped in to see why so many people were crowded in the building. After a quick tour of the lab he revealed he went to art school in Phoenix before getting a job as a policeman in Alaska, and he said he hoped he would get to use the equipment too.

Consider this a draft. I want to sit down and flesh this idea out, but:

Equally well equipped as the electronics hobbyists and inventors in Shanghai, Chicago, the investment of fabrication equipment may be an equalizing factor in bringing the same opportunities to rural and dense urban areas.

A big idea with establishing this lab is it may allow locals to develop skills that can be paid to remote workers. Instead of learning a skill and getting hired to leave the town, locals could bring income into the community by working from the lab.

Some replacement parts for salvaged work tables. Feet and cable guides.

Digital embroidery was really popular. I love setting up classrooms with sewing machines. A couple of kids in any group have likely dealt with threading a sewing machine so they can become helpers very quickly.

Some fun with broken glass:

Playing with broken glass: Laser etchings make ghosts over Togiak

A picture we received a few months after setting the lab up, a village elder’s portrait laser etched into a whale bone.

A couple of examples of Bristol Bay locals using 3D scanning and printing before this lab was set up. Bones from a whale carcass are being meticulously scanned in full color with a NextEngine laser scanner. A machinist explained to me how useful it is to print a block of plastic to test dimensions. The plastic is much easier to machine or just sand down until it fits than using a block of steel. Once he’s happy with the fit, he can machine it manually from a block of steel.

Hackerspace on Treasure Hill

Visiting FabLab Taipei and OpenLab Taipei

Though I griped about Chinese internet censorship, FabLab Taipei was the real reason I hopped on a plane for a detour the last few days of my trip. Their facebook group is always sharing amazing projects and a video I saw at Fab11 of their Maker Faire showed a big, active, and creative community. I messaged the group the day before I arrived but didn’t hear back, so I got in touch the old fashioned way and showed up at their door.

I was greeted by a man named Sega Liu, who was working on his iteration of a fold-up 3D printer. He gave me a tour of the multi-room facility, which was punctuated by a number of surprising projects: incredible corrugated cardboard & resin surfboard (Ah cardboard, always reminds me of home), intricate laser cut wood paneling and an impressive cardboard-folded giant frog mask. The lab was stocked with capable machines, including an assortment of 3D printers, the familiar Roland circuitboard milling machine, and a very heavy duty CNC machine that doesn’t get much use (it runs the unfortunate Roland software, though it accepts plain text serial data not so different from GCode, so perhaps the more modern & open source ChiliPeppr could be modified to control it.) There’s a sizable laser cutter, lots of electronics equipment, and in the basement: a comprehensive wood-shop.

I felt immediately at home in the space, which had a lot in common with CUCFabLab: it is open to the community relatively late at night (every day 6–10PM), has every machine you could possibly need to make awesome stuff, and a lot of the furniture, well, has a hand-me-down feel (which I like better than the try-not-to-scratch-the-table newness of some places. Gives it character 😉

I chatted with Sega about my work back at CUCFabLab. It always surprises people to think FabLabbing could be a full time job. FabLab Taipei, like many hackerspaces, is all volunteer. I told Sega about how CUCFabLab has grown from an all volunteer staff to employing a dozen people at times (though I’ll write another time about the trade-offs in establishing a paid staff among volunteers). At some point in all this he decided that Ted, the main benefactor of the lab, would want to meet me and called him back to the lab (I guess I had just missed him).

Ted told me about the history of the lab, and how they use to have membership fees but eventually switched to free membership after establishing that it was a hard sell and wasn’t helping much with rent anyway. Apparently, Taipei is awash with low-cost designers and prototypers to the point where even university students don’t design things for themselves, they can hire someone to work for them for the price of a typical hackerspace membership. It is an interesting problem in Taiwan as in China, when building things is seen as something of a lower-class occupation: how do you catch people’s interest with the prospect of “Do It Yourself!”

Of course, the premise of a FabLab is to create something new, and in my experience learning to use a machine gives you a lot of ideas about what can be created with it — so if you want to design something (even to have someone else build it), if you want to be innovative, you could start by learning the various styles of fabrication. I think as people’s interest is piqued by the surprising inventions exhibited at Maker Faires and workshops, they will be enticed to try it themselves.

After telling Ted that I was interested in learning about as many maker communities as possible, he said “We better get over to OpenLab then, you can come to FabLab any night but OpenLab is Wednesdays, lets go.”

Exterior of FabLab Taipei, Interior of cab across town.

Ted hailed a cab to take us across town to OpenLab Taipei, past a temple and through narrow corridors. I had just read about this neighborhood earlier that day: an illegal settlement of improvised architecture that the city chose to preserve and transform into a collective of artist studios called Treasure Hill. I was surprised to find out that a hackerspace was nestled among the concrete cubes stacked up here, but it certainly fit in among the artist studios.

The most striking project sitting on the shelf was a 3D printed Immorton Joe mask complete with ribbon cable hairdo. A very DIY shortwave radio built with point-to-point soldering on a copper board was being tuned into Chinese music. Scattered on the table were other projects in progress including a recycled CD drive pen plotter. A pile of vintage diagnostics gear completed the hackerspace aesthetic, and an impressive laser-etched stamp stood ready to print more banners for promoting the space.

We were just here for an hour before people were packing up. Ted and I took the metro one stop to the Shida night market to keep chatting about maker communities. There was some fantastic barbeque chicken (was that cinnamon? Five spice?) and instead of bars in this area there are convenience stores with barstools in a sitting area — kind of neat, you pay convenience store prices for a bar experience. We talked about 3Nod underwriting Fab12 and how Fab Academy would work for a Chinese student body (the material will be translated on a rolling basis and Chinese fab labs will work a few weeks behind English language labs).

The next day I visited the Treasure Hill artist village again, this time in the daylight. It has fantastic art scattered around the open areas and on top of roofs. I peaked into a small cafe called Tadpole Point and saw they had burgers with fried egg on the menu so I put in an order and browsed the art books lining the wall. The room had a great view out the screen door overlooking the interstate and the valley. According to wiki this location was originally fortified for anti-aircraft defense, but it’s a good place to enjoy the scenery, too. With a great burger served on a solid wood butcher block and a breeze through a window of the poured concrete room, I reflected on how cheap materials can be arranged so elegantly, in the case of architecture and for food.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to find out more about the Conductive Ink Experiment nor the More Than Useful Detective Lab.

Shanghai Maker Carnival: A Poem of Optimism and Pessimism

All my cameras’ batteries died, so I drew a picture instead.

Really great 1930s era stadium built from stone filled with exhibitors’ tents surrounded by high-rises from every decade. Old tenements and new glass skyscrapers.

A booth where people assembled a kitted ukulele.

Mothers looking proud as their young sons soldered electronic kits.

Women my age exhibiting their hand dyed indigo fabrics and basket weaving skills, holding workshops to teach traditional crafts. People being just as enthusiastic to try basket weaving as LED blinking.

Superb LEGO sculptures.

A girl who was super stoked that I paid 20 yuan (~3USD) for their orange juice. (I was super confused, they were a coffee / juice bar, so all their bottled products said coffee/juice, and I was trying to ask if this coffee has juice in it, or does this juice have coffee in it)

Neat products. Super simple robot kits. A sweet dirt cheap LIDAR module for autonomous vehicles. Nixie tube clocks: a whole niche market fueled by soviet vacuum tubes.

Little kids operating tiny machining tools. A lathe just a foot long, a table saw that was 4 inches square. I can’t find the company that was representing there, but I found the product on alibaba. Parents were letting their kids cut and lathe and grind stuff with no safety gear and I was actually super concerned but nobody else was. Sam told a parent, ‘OK hope no one cuts their finger off’ and the dad just laughed. I’m like, ya’ll gotta tie your hair back what are you doing.

Lots of DIY laser cutters. Even little 2W lasers can blind you instantly why didn’t you build an enclosure you really should be wearing eye protection it’s not hard.

A long line of people waiting to step inside a giant safety net to pilot a quadcopter for a few minutes. A couple of quadcopters flying around outside this cage, videoing the event.

A young boy pointing up excitedly a the surveilling quadcopter in amazement. It occurs to me that if quadcopters eventually become omnipresent annoyances he might look back on the first time he saw one here.

Entrepreneurs getting to introduce hundreds of people to what their product can do. CNC machines, autonomous robots, and cute windmills all made from makerblock, pretty cool.

Entrepreneurs unable to attract a crowd to their demonstration of their variation on circuit lessons, puzzle games, or construction blocks. How they must have felt to have invested so much time to make a product and have everyone walk by to the crowded table neighboring theirs.

There’s a lot of people encouraged to make 10,000 of something to see if it will sell. So many ideas that only increase the demand for resource extraction for plastics, computer chips, and electricity.

But the air feels clean (pollution here, at least, is carried away by the breeze) and kids are building toy wind farms out of LEGOs.

Laser Cut Constellations

A 2D Design + Circuit Building Activity for Teens & Adults

At the Makers in Motion summer camp in Peoria, IL, the CUCFabLab team tried out a new activity to complement the camper’s visit to the museum’s planetarium. At the end of the camp, we had a whole sky-full of glowing constellations. The creative soldering abilities of 7th and 8th graders surprised us — this was just a day after assembling their first ‘blinky badge’!

The afternoon started by asking the class what they learned during the planetarium show. There was some conversation about stars burning at different intensities with different colors, and some review of how red-shift and blue-shift are used to determine the movement and velocity of stars and galaxies.

We then asked if anyone had a favorite constellation, or if they knew any mythical stories about them, but that didn’t get very far. So, we let everyone open their laptops and pull up the wikipedia’s list of constellations. (You know, I just realized how nice it is to have a laptop-based computer lab, since you get to dictate whether people are looking at computer screens or each other. You’re much less likely to look across the table or up at the instructor if you have a computer screen in front of you already.)

Everyone was encouraged to read through the descriptions and mythologies of different constellations for about 10 minutes before we would go around the room and share what we learned. This was pretty fun — the wiki articles often have nice art and interesting origin stories for the students to share with each other (we didn’t discourage looking over each other’s shoulders). When time was up, we asked each student what constellation they chose to look at and if they could tell us a little about it. Some people had constellations with very intriguing mythologies (Anything involving the god Jupiter gets pretty crazy) and we had some laughs over the absurd story lines of Greek gods.

What followed was our standard intro to Inkscape: here’s how you can draw circles, here’s how you can draw lines. You can turn circles into lines and vice versa. You can copy paste pictures, and turn those into lines, too! Oh, and all those lines we have? We can have our 30 watt laser beam follow them for us.

The most difficult part is finding suitable constellation art with a strong border to trace using Inkscape’s “trace bitmap” feature. A few of the outlines had to be drawn by hand with the Bezier Curve / Line tool — the snake and the big dipper come to mind — but that’s a good learning experience, too. After we had the outline, we went through the process of creating the cut outs the LEDs pop into.

  • Create a 0.9 mm circle
  • Duplicate that circle and move it 3 mm away (using the X and Y coordinates at the top of the program)
  • Group the pair of circles
  • Copy paste the pair of circles anywhere you want to place a star/LED

Edit, 6 months later: Really great constellation art can be found on wiki, here:

Students who finished that early were asked to draw red lines between the stars forming their constellations that could be lasered at low power (or in one case, trace an outline of the ram with a red line since all of its stars surround it.) When the files looked like they were coming together, we had everyone save their inkscape file to a shared folder on google drive. Only do this if you have really good internet! A locally networked shared folder would do the trick, too. It’s always fun to see the kids’ names fill up the folder on the instructor’s screen so we can make sure everyone got their file in the same place.

After snack we wrapped up the day by learning how to solder with the ever-popular Blinky Badge! That night Virginia and I checked each file for proper line weight and color (our Epilog laser likes to have 0.001″, solid black lines) and compiled all the Inkscape files into two cut files we could knock out the next morning.

The next day the kids were greeted with wooden versions of their digital designs. To start the electronics portion of the project, we asked the students to review what they knew about circuits and the blinky badge — just that you’ve got a battery with + and -, and you’ve got an LED with + and -. We passed around batteries and LEDs of different colors and let everyone experiment. Pretty soon they figured out you can put multiple LEDs on one battery. (Check out the super-informative Evil Mad Scientist blog for reasons why this works out OK without the ‘proper’ resistors in series.) We also stumbled upon the question of why you can’t mix colors —remembering that elecricity will take whatever path requires it to do the least amount of work and some colors like red and yellow take less voltage to illuminate than others like blue and white. Hey, that’s kind of like how cooler, less energetic stars are red and yellow while hotter, intensely burning stars are blue and white. Probably just a coincidence and nothing to do with band gaps and photon wavelengths. (You get to decide if you want to bring up band gaps and photons with your age group!)

So everybody knows all the positives have to connect and all the negatives have to connect and they can’t touch. Next step was to design the circuit that would connect the LEDs in their constellation. We passed out red and blue markers and asked everyone to trace their constellation on paper and then mark where their stars are by eyeballing it. This was presented as the puzzle it is: how do you rotate each LED in its place and run a piece of copper between all of them so that they connect without crossing wires? (Or, at least avoid it as much as possible. Everyone learned that electric tape is a very useful insulator if you don’t want two pieces of metal to touch.)

Like I said, I was really impressed with everyone’s problem solving and stick-to-it-edness on this task. Kids even commented that it was fun! I think the imminent danger of things burning along with the puffs of steam and being trusted with a soldering iron made this a really good experience for everyone. If you’re planning on doing this activity yourself, make sure you enforce the rule to put your soldering iron away if you’re not actively melting something. The only injuries I’ve ever seen in teaching people to solder (2 minor burns in hundreds of students) is when you get distracted and forget you’re holding a burn-stick. To accommodate our kid-to-iron ratio, students had to share, and we also made sure everyone knew not to hand the iron to each other — put the iron back in its holder and let the other person pick it up. Take a close look at the pictures of the solder joints, even when tape overlaps tape its important to join them with a dab of solder as the underside of the tape is non-conductive adhesive. Sometimes you can avoid tape altogether if your LED’s leads reach each other.

There were just a few (maybe 3 or 4 out of 15) that had some persistent problems getting illuminated, but even those kids stuck with it. We were lucky enough to have about 3:1 ratio of teacher-helpers and even if they couldn’t find the error right away just helping the student inspect the circuit for problems helped them persevere. Most of the problems were just weak connections somewhere along the line, solved with another dab of solder. I think the hardest to track down problem we had was one where copper tape was stacked above electric tape stacked above the opposite copper tape, and when soldering on top of this sandwich, the copper absorbed enough heat to melt through the insulator in between, but just enough so we didn’t see it until totally disassembling that part of the circuit.

For display, the finished products were taped to black foam core and its wires (jumper cables soldered on after the fact) stuck through to the back. Arduinos were programmed to blink and fade the constellations. When they’re taken home, they could still be illuminated by AAs or button cell batteries.

Here’s a video of the FabLab portion of the camp that includes these constellations.

We ran the workshop at a skillshare at the Museum of Science and Industry, here’s some photos of that by Suzanne Linder!