What is “FabLab”?

Many subscribers of Kuensel may remember that in the interview featured in the May 5 issue, I said: “If I may add flavour to JICA programmes, employment opportunities or ways to create jobs both in the capital city and rural areas would be interesting. If we can ensure Internet access in rural areas, some innovative youth can think of starting business there.”

But how can we create the enabling environment for them?

There are a group of entrepreneurs and volunteers who have been dedicating their time and energy to create the enabling environment for self-sufficiency and youth self-employment. They are aiming at establishing a digital fabrication laboratory or “FabLab” in Bhutan, starting with one in Thimphu. In early November, they are inviting a founder of the FabLab Asia Network, Mr. Yutaka Tokushima of Keio University, Japan.

FabLabs are workshops open to citizens. Equipped with Internet access and 3D printers, laser cutters and other machine tools, FabLabs aim to allow fabrications to address the problems of local communities and individuals and enable local entrepreneurs to make prototypes before entering into mass production. With the help of other FabLab users or “fabbers” around the world, local users are able to learn how to make their product ideas come true. They are able to download the basic design of the similar products available on the Internet, and customise them in accordance with the local needs.

When he was a JICA volunteer on product design in the Philippines, in 2013, Tokushima brought this new concept to the Bohol provincial office of the Department of Trade and Industry, and the FabLab Bohol was formally founded in May 2014 in the premise of the Bohol Island State University. While it is used as a laboratory for the university students, it is also open to the local citizens. With the prototype molds they made at the lab, the entrepreneurs are making a variety of products as souvenirs for tourists. FabLab was highly recognised by then President Aquino and the government has promoted it nationwide.

Potential of FabLabs in the Bhutanese context

Jeremy Rifkin, one of the world renowned visionaries, wrote in his 2014 publication: “A 3D printing process embedded in an Internet of Things infrastructure means that virtually anyone in the world can become a prosumer, producing his or her own product for use or sharing.” The report on the global strategic trends out to 2045, released by the British government in 2014, describes that it’s “a trend towards manufacturing processes relocating closer to their consumers, to avoid long supply chains.” 3D printing and other digital fabrication technology enable on-demand production, allowing physical goods to be created quickly after an order is placed, instead of keeping large amounts of costly stock ready for prolonged periods.

I believe that the above nature of digital fabrication technology is highly relevant to the context of Bhutan, which has long been thought to be facing a serious spatial disadvantage.

First, with decentralised production, products could be designed and “printed” for local consumption, potentially reducing reliance on expensive imports and requiring less industrial infrastructure than conventional manufacturing. This mass customisation enables consumers and entrepreneurs to print their own products and thus appeal to small and varied markets. In the Philippines, Tokushima and his team have initiated the research on a low-cost prosthetic foot customised for persons with physical disability.

Second, the new fabrication technology is cost-saving for production factor inputs to be used. The additive manufacturing process like 3D printing requires just one-tenth of the material of conventional manufacturing. The power used in the production could be supplied from renewable energy sources harvested on-site or locally.  At the FabLab Bohol, research and development on the micro and small reprocessing facilities is on-going so that the used plastic materials could be reprocessed as materials for low-cost construction.

Third, in the FabLab, machines are self-reproductive and create child and grandchild machines. With the installation of one 3D printer, we can reproduce other 3D printers. With the help of the existing technical and vocational education training (TVET) institutes, the emergence of this ecosystem could be accelerated in Bhutan.

Fourth, FabLabs could provide the venues for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Once they are attached to the existing higher education and TVET institutes in Bhutan, they could be better utilised as a lab for the students as well as a workshop for local citizens. Many readers may still recall the 2010 Indian movie “3 idiots” starring Aamir Khan who acted as Rancho, a college maniac making everything himself. FabLabs may facilitate the culture of making among the youth.

International volunteers and experts in Bhutan may sometimes be faced with the lack of instruments that will facilitate their activities in the field. International cooperation agencies like JICA sometimes face the limited availability of spare parts that fix the equipment and machines provided in their past cooperation. If there is a FabLab accessible nearby, they could easily print or make the products they want.

Making an ecosystem of decentralised production

Although the first lab will be opened in Thimphu, it doesn’t have to be the one and only FabLab in Bhutan. If there are similar labs in the remote areas, they may turn to be a centre for local citizens and young tech geeks to gather and interact to make grass-roots innovations.

There are still a lot of challenges to overcome, including initial cost for installation of desk-top fabrication equipment, high-speed Internet access in the remote areas, and development of human resources who are able to operate the machines, to name a few. But still the self-reproductive nature of the ecosystem of decentralised production may have potential to lead to less reliance on external resources.

The initiative of the volunteer group for a FabLab in Thimphu is a small step. But it’s a great first step to turn Bhutan into a “Fab Country.”

Contributed by 

Koji Yamada

Chief Representative

JICA Bhutan Office

FabLab could be a venue for learning by making. (Photo taken at the Ateneo de Manila University, the Philippines, in December 2015.)