The Mobile Fablab as it stands parked outside the SciBono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg. During National Science Week an estimated
12 000 learners visited the centre.
Interested learners huddle around an instructor at the Mobile Fablab outside the SciBono Discovery Centre during National Science Week in Johannesburg.
An estimated 12 000 learners between grades four and 12 visited the SciBono Discovery Centre during this year’s National Science Week activities in August. This was where the DST/CSIR Mobile Fablab could also be found.
National Science Week – an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) – is a countrywide celebration of science involving various stakeholders and role players conducting science-based activities. The event is run in all nine provinces at multiple sites per province.
“National Science Week promotes the greater awareness and appreciation of the contribution that science and technology make to the nation,” says Lindi Mophuti, the South African FabLabs coordinator at the CSIR. “The Mobile FabLab is perfect for making a contribution towards this aim.”
The Mobile FabLabs is a digital fabrication platform for technical education and invention, which can address inequalities between rural/township and urban environments by providing tools, curricular resources for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, as well as teacher and inventor support in places typically beyond the geographic or economic reach of urban, high tech facilities.
Mophuti explains: “With emerging technologies and industries people and places with resources are the first to reap the benefits – both intellectual and financial – of development. The socio-economic gap widens daily and closing the gap is essential to the general economic prosperity of a society. The Mobile FabLab is one of the vehicles to help bridge this gap. It has the capabilities of becoming a universal technical resource on wheels, moving from school to school, community to community.”
During the exhibition of the Mobile FabLab at the National Science Week, learners were amazed by what they can do in the FabLab. Some learners used computers to design logos of their favourite soccer teams, and engraved those designs on leather belts, using the laser cutter. “They saw the link between technology and mathematics, as they had to make measurements and work with precision during the designing phase. They realised that theory needs to be supported by practical examples for it to make sense,” says Mophuti.
She continues: “Some learners wanted to fabricate signs for their schools, and they requested that the Mobile FabLab pay a visit to their schools. Technology teachers were also fascinated by the lab, and they could identify projects that require a facility such as the FabLab.”
The FabLab concept was first introduced to South Africa in 2005 by the DST under the auspices of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy-Implementation Unit (AMTS-IU) and is managed by the CSIR. It is a concept that originated as the educational outreach component of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Centre for Bits & Atoms (CBA).
“A FabLab consists of a suite of off-the-shelf, industrial grade, digital fabrication tools, an electronics workbench, seven computers, programming tools, and is supported by open source design software,” says Mophuti. “They are small-scale versions of a production factory. While a FabLab cannot be used to manufacture thousands of assembly-line products, it can be used by individuals to create prototypes from arts and crafts to engineering and architecture models. Computer based design or drawing software, in most cases Open Source software, is used to create designs that are then automatically manufactured by an appropriate cutting, milling or forming machine.”
There are seven FabLabs situated across South Africa, plus a mobile version that can travel to where the need is.