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:
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.