Five Questions With: Shawn Wallace

Local instructor for the Providence Fab Academy at AS220 talks about the digital-fabrication center’s work. More

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Five Questions With: Shawn Wallace

"The whole idea of the Fab Lab and Fab Academy is to empower an individual with the breadth and depth of tools, skills and knowledge that were once accessible only to specialized professions."
Posted 3/26/14

Shawn Wallace is the local instructor for the Providence Fab Academy at AS220, an intensive six-month certification program in digital fabrication first conceived by Center For Bits and Atoms Director Neil Gershenfeld at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

PBN: AS220 describes the Fabrication Laboratory. or “Fab Lab” is described as part of “a growing movement to provide democratic access to the tools of technology, through open hardware and software.” What does that mean to you, and why is it important?

WALLACE: When we first started the Fab Lab, two of the lab members, Bruce and Nick Wattendorf, were involved in a 3-D printing group based on the RepRap design of “self-replicating” printers. They coordinated a weekend workshop in the AS220 performance space and brought up a colleague in the RepRap community from New York, Zach Hoeken. Zack had just formed a new company with some friends from the NYC Resistor hackerspace called Makerbot and the workshop was to build their first generation printer, the Cupcake.

If you follow the news you’ll know that Stratasys bought Makerbot last year for $400 million. However, the real story there was not about 3-D printing or printers; the real story was that this was the first $400 million company to come out of the collaborative atmosphere and access to tools provided by a hackerspace. For example, the Makerbot founders took advantage of a membership that shared a wide variety of skills and used Resistor’s Epilog laser cutter to fab their first printers (which is actually the same machine that’s in a Fab Lab).

I know there are some bad feelings when you dig into the Makerbot story, so I’ll drop that comparison now. But I think the Fab Lab idea and network has similar possibilities. By providing access and opportunity to people who don’t necessarily have access to institutions like MIT, you can’t predict the results and may end up with the next $400 million idea or scientific breakthrough.

PBN: Who can apply to the Fab Academy, and what kind of learning environment can they expect?

WALLACE: Anyone can apply; the only real requirement is to have pretty solid basic computer skills. Applications are handled by the Barcelona Fab Lab, part of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. Each Wednesday class is held via video conference by Fab Lab impresario Neil Gershenfeld from the Center for Bits and Atoms. In Providence we have lab sessions on Monday and Thursday nights to follow up on the material.

The course is based on Neil’s class “How To Make (Almost) Anything.” It is kind of a survey class, where each week we cover a new topic and students must choose a tool or set of tools and complete a project. There’s kind of a “well-trod path” through the class, where you can take each week’s “Hello World” project, modify and document it, and have a successful week. You can also go wide or deep into the material, and there are lots of pointers to more in-depth information and other research. For example, last week I found out about Saul Griffith’s experiments with sewn pneumatic robots, read some of Matt Keeter's thesis on new tools for volumetric modeling, and explored Erik Demaine’s curved origami forms.

The distributed nature of the Fab Academy is an important part of the program. This year we had students traveling from Kazakhstan and South Africa. One student has to travel to Egypt for weeks at a time, so he’s splitting his time between Providence and Fab Lab Egypt. Graduation is at the Fab10 conference in Barcelona in July.

PBN: What unique tools or skills can a Fab Academy graduate offer a potential employer? In what industries are these skill sets in high demand?

WALLACE: The whole idea of the Fab Lab and Fab Academy is to empower an individual with the breadth and depth of tools, skills and knowledge that were once accessible only to specialized professions. So a single maker can act on all aspects of making things, from computer aided design, electronics design/production/programming, machining, mold-making, etc.

This is all enabled by computers, and the tools are evolving very rapidly right now. So part of the Fab Academy approach is to train people to learn new tools and technology on their own. We also cover using modern collaborative tools for version control and project management like Git and Mercurial.

I can give you a few examples of how the Year 1 students built on their Fab Academy experiences:

  • Anna is the digital fabrication editor at Maker Media, publisher of MAKE Magazine.

  • Elliot is the digital education manager at the Rhode Island School of Design, and part of his job is to push forward digital making and programming techniques there.

  • Jenine has continued as a successful freelance artist, but has added a large-format laser cutter to her box of tools.

  • Makeda is a premedical student at Wentworth Institute of Technology and founded the FABLabs for America organization.

  • Noah has worked for tech startups and is currently doing electronics design and production for an open source hardware company.

PBN: What are some highlights from this year’s Fab Academy session so far?

WALLACE: From the Providence Fab Lab, check out Nickolas Chelyapov’s 3-D-printed case for his Fab In-System Programmer (see weeks 4 and 5), Aisha Jandosova’s press-fit 2-D Fab Lab scrabble (“Fabble”), and John Schnyder’s press-fit truss bridge.

For a global sample, see Michael Hurtado’s impressive 3-D scanning survey and Lindenmayer tree. I’m also looking forward to Andrew Leek’s final project, a robotic tentacle arm.

You can see the work of all of the students in progress at the Fab Academy class archive: http://fabacademy.org/archives/2014/students/index.html.

PBN: How has the AS220 Fab Lab and the Fab Academy in Providence changed in the years since they were launched, and how do you expect the program will continue to evolve going forward?

WALLACE: We started five years ago by raising about $50,000 and equipping the lab with the minimal inventory and tool set to get going. Since then, AS220 has fleshed out the lab and inventory, and the previous Fab Academy instructor (and current dean) Anna France has built the Fab Academy program into a well organized and sustainable program.

Since it is going well this year, I am hoping to offer a complimentary 15-week program in the fall semester, which will focus more on creative software and hardware tools. The focus of the Fab Academy is on fabrication processes, and there’s much more we can do with electronics design and programming. We’re in the middle of a Cambrian era of creative coding tools like Processing, Arduino, openFrameworks, PureData, Cinder, etc. I’m hoping this second course will give us a chance to take a similar wide and deep survey of those hardware and software tools.

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