24 February 2012

Integreatplus's Learning Lunch: Refab Space and FabLab

There was definitely a touch of Spring in the air today as I followed the Don to Sheffield. According to my car's thermometer the temperature hit 18 degrees Celsius at one point which is almost unheard of for February in Yorkshire.

The early taste of Spring was a good backdrop for Integreat Plus's Learning Lunch which was the reason for my journey. The topic was "What are these Fablabs". The speakers were James Wallbank, chief executive officer of Access Space, and the Manufacturing Institute's Eddie Kirkby.  They had a good audience which included academics like Prof. Paul Atkinson of Sheffield Hallam University, product designers like Dan Taylor of Click Industrial Design, architects from SKINN (Shalesmoor, Kelham Island and Neepsend Network) not to mention a respectable delegation from the local authority.

James's presentation was particularly timely as Access Space had been listed as number 2 in NESTA and The Guardian's list of 50 New Radicals (see Geoff Mulgan's article in The Guardian on 18 Feb 2012). James spoke about the work of Access Space which brings together learners from all kinds of backgrounds and gives them hands on experience of computing through working on recycled hardware and open source software. The project has inspired similar centres around the world and there are now 100 across Europe and Latin America.   Access Space's latest project is the Refab-Space which will be a fabrication laboratory for Sheffield.

Manchester, of course, already has a FabLab and Eddie Kirkby is one of its prime movers.  I first met him at the breakfast meeting in Daresbury and was bowled over by the project (see "FabLab Manchester" in my IP North-West blog of 18 July 2011).  The two things that appeal to me about FabLab are that it places an important new technology within reach of ordinary people and its technologies bring manufacturing back to Britain.  Eddie gave some heartening news about the success of FabLab. It had attracted twice as many users as it had expected and it was paying its way commercially. More FabLabs were on the way.   Keighley in Spring 2012.  Northern Ireland some time later this year.  West of Scotland shortly after that and another centre in the North West.

The commercial success of FabLab prompted me to ask a question that had been discussed in a number of forums as to whether FabLab was taking bread out of product design and development consultants' mouths.   "Too bad if it is" was the general view, "They have to develop new business models or take the consequences."  Eddie pointed out it was too late to do anything about it because open source design software was already available.  Professor Atkinson recalled that graphic designers made similar objections to desk top publishing 20 years ago but it did not hurt them in the end as they simply changed their business models.  The product designers in the audience agreed.  The ghost of Ned Ludd was well and truly laid to rest.

For those who missed the presentations, there will be an opportunity to catch James Wallbank at Sheffield Inventors Group on 5 March 2012 at 18:00.  He will be the guest speaker at the Group's next meeting at Sheffield Central Library, Surrey Street, S1 1XZ.  He will talk about how the Refab Space can help inventors.  The talk is free but let Lynne Hichcliffe know that you are coming because it is likely to be popular.  The last meeting was packed.  Email her or give her a tinkle on 0114 273 4736.

 If you fancy a jaunt across the Pennines, Haydn Insley of the Manchester FabLab will be guest speaker at Liverpool Inventors Club next Monday (see "Liverpool Inventors Club Re-launch - Fabulous FabLab" Inventors Club 28 Jan 2012).  The meeting will take place on Monday, 27 Feb 2012 at 18:00 at the offices of QualitySolicitors Jackson & Canter at 88 Church Street, Liverpool L1 3AY.

If anybody has any questions or comments, he or she can contact me through my contact form,, Facebook, Linkedin, Xing or twitter or call me on 0113 320 3232.