February 20, 2011


Back on the 3rd February last year, Andy Goodwin arranged for he and I to get a look round the Art and Design Academy at Liverpool John Moores University. We were partly there to scope it out for the first Ignite Liverpool, but mainly to see what sort of facilities they had to offer. As this page of notes that I took on the day show, the answer was lots of cool toys...

Notes taken at the ADA visit

That'll be one laser cutter, one flatbed cutter, a couple of CNC mills and a very fancy 3D printer.

It was pretty obvious that the next step was to get to play with them, and so the plan was hatched for some kind of hack-weekend to get lots of people with different backgrounds and skills along and see what came out of it.

The difficulty with non-software hackdays, as I've found with running Howduino, is that people can't always bring all the components and tools that they need with them. For software, everyone brings a laptop, and libraries or applications can generally be downloaded in a few minutes from the Internet. Physical components - be it electronics or sheets of plywood - generally need to be ordered a few days before you need them, and very few people have their own laser-cutter to bring to an event.

As a result, most of the similar digital fabrication events that we found seem to focus on either demonstrating the capabilities of the machinery, or walking people through some examples to teach them how things work. Whilst that's useful, and was soon an obvious element to FABcamp, we also wanted scope for people to bring their own ideas along and see how far they could take them in a weekend.

With setting ourselves such a challenge, and pushing the boundaries of what had been done before around hackdays, it was always going to take some time to organise and so it was almost a year later - on the 29th and 30th January 2011 - that FABcamp Liverpool took place.

In the intervening months, I'd dropped away from the organising side of things, as there wasn't much I could offer beyond enthusiasm, opinions and the occasional pointer or introduction. Andy was the driving force behind the event, with the obvious extensive and necessary assistance from the rest of the OpenLabs team and the Art and Design Academy. They found the other partners to bring in, like FabLab Manchester and Razorlab, worked out the details of how the event was scheduled, and undertook the myriad of tasks required to pull off such a great weekend.

The event was split into three strands: an unconference-ish series of talks and presentations (including, by all accounts, an interesting talk on product design from Ilsa Parry); a number of workshops so people could design and 3D print custom lego minifigs of themselves, or learn how to lay out and laser-cut or laser-etch their designs; and a free-form "work on your own projects" track.

It was the latter of these that I worked on, which meant that I deliberately avoided the talks and workshops. It was a real shame in some ways as they looked very interesting, but my experience at Over the Air back in September showed me that I wouldn't make any progress on my own project if I kept interrupting it with other sessions.

I spent the weekend making a split-flap display. It's something I've wanted to build for ages, but hadn't got much beyond initial ideas and sketches. FABcamp gave me the opportunity to start prototyping and seeing if my assumptions held up when exposed to the laws of physics. I also started to get to grips with using Inkscape to lay out vector designs.

By Sunday afternoon I hadn't made as much progress as I'd have liked, but I did have the electronics and software side mostly done - an Arduino driving a stepper motor - and had a proof-of-concept version of the flap mechanism built. It needs further refinement, and then some more time with the laser-cutter and flat-bed cutter but there was a great sense of achievement in getting that far. I don't think I'm the only attendee who came away with a much better understanding of what can be done and, more importantly, the (beginnings of the) skills to make it happen - coupled with lots more ideas of other projects to pursue...

Hopefully there will be more FABcamps in the future, both in Liverpool and elsewhere. There's definitely the demand for them - tickets for FABcamp Liverpool were massively over-subscribed and went within days, and the only promotion that it got were initial tweets from Andy and me.

There are also some other write-ups and video of the weekend over on the FABcamp Liverpool page on Lanyrd.

In the meantime, if you want to play around with digital fabrication and electronics then come along to the monthly Maker Nights that the Liverpool Hackspace is holding in partnership with LJMU Art & Design Academy.


Posted by Adrian at February 20, 2011 04:52 PM | TrackBack

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