Affordable Machines by Bart Bakker

Bart calls himself a maker / a fabber and distinquishes himself from someone who constructs machines. His focus is on tracking available affordable machines for smaller fablab purpose and tests them on usability.


Neil Gershenfeld uses the metaphor of $100k, $10k and S1k fablabs. The 100k labs are the institutional, hierarchical labs, as were set up from the MIT model.

The 10K labs originate in a different form: enthousiasts with little money wanting to start a lab.  Doing it in a grassroots way. They have mostly been neglected, possibly because their horizontal approach. But they might be the driving type in the coming years.

The 1K labs are the minifablabs. They are more than DIY folks in a garage. They are individuals that want to be involved and contribute to the fablab movement.

The smallest fablab will need a $4k investment. 1K is just a metaphor.

It might be better to speak of maxi, midi and mini-fablabs.

The basic MIT 100k lab inventory consisted of a lasercutter, a small mill , a vinyl cutter and electronics. Later a ShopBot big mill and a 3D printer were added.

Now: what machines do a grassroots lab really need and what will it cost?

We checked the machine occupancy in the 100k fablab in Utrecht : lasercutter 100 %, small mill 20, vinyl cutter 30, big mill 50. And there are always people playing with the 3D printers.

The main workhorse of any fablab is its lasercutter. In Utrecht there always people queing in front of it to cut something, or wait their turn just to do a little test.

We investigated if  small chinese cutters could provide extra cutting  capacity

The answer was plainly no: horrible control, horrible software. Not fit for a fablab, whatever its k-size.  But I liked the machine as a desktop cutter.

Some friends in Holland started an opensource project for a lasercutter controller and software.

Status: the control board is available and the software is working. Not perfect, but good. A LaOS controller board can be dropped in any lasercutter, making it just another printer in any network, whatever the operating system.

In the LaOS development cutters from HPC in the UK were used.

A LaOS cutter with a 30x20 bedsize will cost under € 1500, a 30x40 for € 3000 and a 30x60 (the size of an Epilog) for € 4500.

This is lower than the off the shelf cutters that work with the industry standard proprietary software Lasercut 5.3. For those machines grassroots labs should look at the BabyLion and the Thunderlaser Mini60.

A mini-mill is not much used.  For a grassroots lab you could build one yourself. I built for the miniFabLab a Mantis for € 300, using an Ultimaker controller. It works, but is hardly used. One reason being the amount of tooling reqiured. The Shapeoko kit is the runner up. $ 600

A better tool for a grassroots lab will be a flat bed router like the Fireball V90  30 x 45  (12x18”) and the Microcarve mv3  28 x 23 (11x9”).  Add the spindle of your choice and be done for € 1200 to 1500. Much up is the Shopbot Desktop 61 x 46 (24x18 “) for US$ 4500  plus spindle/transport/customs.

If the lab wants a larger routing surface, then look at a  BTZ PF1000 with a bed of 66 x 80 for € 2750 for the bare bed to add a spindle and electronics. And get a quality spindle. I know of a lab that has a BTZ and is using it for everything, with its mini-mill gaining dust.

The variety in small and mid-size routers is such that any lab should clearly contemplate its ambition.

The vinyl cutter is a no-brainer: buy a Silhouette Cameo cutter/plotter for €300. Comes with free, friendly and easy to learn software. Nice machine to take to schools or demo’s. If 30 cms wide is not enough get a 60 cm GCC for € 800.

For a lab a 3D scanner is not required, but nice to have. Fablab Aachen is developing the FabScan which will cost around one hundred euro. A Kinect can also provide good scanning. One up is the David handscanner. If a fablab has to do serious lots of scanning, then look at the NextEngine laserscanner, $ 3000. Fablab Groningen has one and it is remarkably good.

3D printers are a different story. I have built several 3D printers over the past 5 years: a fab@home, a RepRap, an Ultimaker and there is a Printrbot Plus kit sitting on my desk.

From a makers point of view 3D-printers are pretty immature as a production tool,  but from a learners point of view they are very valuable. Tinkering with 3D printers is what in every fablab should be done. It is a bit like microcomputers in the 70’s: there are about 30 different makes around. My favorite is the Ultimaker for its speed and versatility, but look at Printrbot for a low cost entry system.

A nice thing about working with 3D printers is that you have to get on the learning curve of 3D drawing. Friendly tools are emerging like Tinkercad and 3DTin.

and services like Autodesk 123D Catch.

Same goes for 2D drawing: mastering Inkscape should be just as common as learning to ride a bicycle.

The miniFabLab is a real fablab: with open access, the fabcharter on the wall and even a polycom.  We look from a makers point of view at affordable machines, their virtues and limitations. We do make things, but the miniFabLAb has become primarily a catalyst for people wanting to start a lablab.

We have some recommendations for grassroots starters:

• Gather companions, don’t try it alone

• Look for free stuff, space, people, floating around

• Don’t aim too low

• Define your ambition / quality of service

• Select machines accordingly, they exist !

• Get involved in the fablab community

• Learn the Fabacademy videos (free on vimeo)

• Visit other labs

• Get a space and a lasercutter

• And just start  !

Bart Bakker, Utrecht - NL