FabLabTulsa is set up in a fair bit of retail space on South Lewis, a bit hard to spot at first with its sign bolted flat on its slanted façade, facing the street. Promptly at 3 on an off-Saturday, I’m greeted by their paid part-time electrical engineer, who promptly ferries the dozen or so rubberneckers through the various stations. Our host, one of FabLabTulsa’s master technicians and notable 3D printer aficionado, has at his home, a custom H-frame printer capable of doing nearly life-size statues in ABS. And naturally, the first thing you see at the space is a rotating-platform 3D scanner (custom built with a Kinect and motorized tracks) where you can pose for such a casting.
To your left at the entry, facing the street, is the big table, equally suited to potluck or group project. The Lab’s half-kitchen loaded with red plastic cups and coffee is a quick walk around the whiteboard, and the restrooms behind, in the corner. To your right at the entryway is a greeting desk, and then the main business, the design and machine shop!
We trace along the back wall, lined with well-defined workstations, each labelled by a CNCed hanging sign. There’s a small, precision machine mill, great for casting molds for plastic or silicone parts, or cutting circuit boards. There’s a 40-Watt laser cutter, which of course is in constant use, and then we pass through the airlock into the wood shop, complete with a band saw and a 1.2×2.4 meter ShopBot CNC. There’s also a decent set of hand tools, a drill press, and plenty of vacuums, brooms, and other dust removal equipment for cleaning up. Back out in the main space, we see the 3D Printing space, anchored by two MakerBot Replicators, mainly printing ABS today, and of course, all the fun things you can do with them, like Klein Bottles and the like in a dozen colours.
Thoughtfully included alongside the machining control computers, are dedicated design computers, which keeps the machines online and running G-Code, instead of being busied by users constantly tweaking models. SolidWorks has its own dedicated workstation, and also runs on a bank of design-dedicated laptops set up on an island in the centre of the workzone.
What makes it a FabLab, and not just a Makerspace, is an adherence to the tooling picked out by the MIT master fabbers. They all have the same CNC, and the same Laser Cutter, and the same Mill. Using the same types of tools in the same way, one gains the network effect of being able to develop a process, and then exactly recreate it at any other FabLab. Collectively, they create a mountain inside an isotechnological curve; you can set a new Thing on the peak and watch it snowball downhill, all over the world.
Still, in the US a FabLab has a tremendous propensity to be closed to the public. Call it a curse of academia: ideas spread like wildfire, but the execution is limited to whatever silo the grant-writer starts from. They get all this equipment, and then it sits in the corner of a Community College or Public School until the next 8am-4pm, 182 days a year. This makes it all the more special that FabLabTulsa is completely open, with more than 500 members. Funded mostly with foundation support, the space focuses on being an independent technology accelerator, home or cradle to many a startup, and being an educational resource on the frontier of this new technology.
To this end, they have a mobile lab filled with tech goodies that gets carted off to local schools. Deployable with or without the van, are additional lab carts filled with laptops, topped with things like mini laser cutters or 3D Printers, and they’ll just be parked at the school for use, weeks or months on end. These rigs even have their own cellular routers, just in case the school network isn’t up to snuff getting printables to and from Thingiverse. FabLabTulsa’s remote units are in constant demand, but it shifts as new schools buy in and get their own computerized manufacturing systems. The viral effect of the FabLab rolls on – a job well done, I’d say!
There is another space in development, RawSpace Tulsa, working to spend city “Vision 2025” dollars on a place intended to be The Largest Makerspace [Arty pause] in the World! The plan is to renovate an abandoned factory with public dollars (providing a good use for part of an extended 0.6% city sales tax in the process), establish a semi-public NPO that operates the facility, then rent out sections of the floor of the giant facility by the square, kind of like the Million Dollar Homepage.
Ultimately, this new space would bring together businesspeople with varied skills, equipment, and goals, but able to share ideas and experience. The folks behind this made a presentation to the city council recently – astoundingly, when warned at 10pm about the 10am meeting the next day, our multi-talented tour guide completed the design and multiple versions of 3D printing of both a problem (unreachable bolt) and a tool to solve it (a specially designed wrench). This was then ready in time to be printed by the RawSpacers right in front of the City Council, the stepper motors loudly singing in plastic, even as the Airport Authority came to ask for another $90 million.
Wacky hijinks have never been a stranger to Tulsa. I can’t end out my writeup without mentioning how I was regaled with the tales of locals and their interactions with Weird Al Yankovic, who filmed UHF in the city back in 1988. About two years ago, at the UHF 25th Anniversary, One FabLabber presented Al with a machined diorama of the Emo Phillips scene (the one where the shop teacher can neither identify nor use a table saw – gold!) Another FabLabber had the fun of being in high school at the same time the film was shot, and offered one or two stories of silliness from way back when.
From the reputation of most FabLabs, I was expecting something way more insular. Instead, I found a lively, active, welcoming workshop. I don’t know how else to sum this up; one could say I’m fablabbergasted.