The Empowering Opening of Fab Lab Austral

There’s a small white building with a teal tin roof perched at the end of the world and it houses Fab Lab Austral. Located in Puerto Williams, Chile, Fab Lab Austral is the southernmost  digital fabrication laboratory (or Fab Lab) on the globe, and one of the most remote. Head south from its windswept front door and the next piece of land you’ll see is Antarctica.

But it’s not alone. Fab Lab Austral is the latest DASSAULT SYSTEMES (DS) SOLIDWORKS sponsored  Fab Lab to open, and it is connected to over 1,600 other Fab Labs and Maker Spaces  in over 100 countries, all affiliated with the Fab Foundation. It’s the product of a partnership between the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, The Fab Foundation, The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS Corp. The opening of Fab Lab Austral is part of the broader Maker movement, a social movement that places value on an individual’s ability to create things rather than solely be a consumer.

The proliferation of fab labs and makerspaces can be traced back to Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. Building on his success with the class “How to make (almost) anything,” he and Sherry Lassiter created the Fab Foundation. The Fab Foundation’s mission is to “provide access to the tools, the knowledge and financial means to educate, innovate, and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow anyone to make (almost) anything, and thereby creating opportunities to improve lives and livelihoods around the world.” With the opening on Fab Lab Austral, they place another foot forward on the path towards achieving their mission.

Members of the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab and SOLIDWORKS teams joined Neil, Sherry, and Fab Lab Austral director Tomas Vivanco for the lab’s opening day. 3DEXPERIENCE Lab North America Manager, Abhishek Bali, and SOLIDWORKS Technical Sales Manager Andean North and CAC, Victor Florindo, arrived the day before the opening to help the local team with last minute preparations and set up different lab stations.

The trip from Dasssault Systemes’s Waltham campus in MA meant two full days (and four airplanes) of traveling. Puerto Williams is so isolated at the bottom of Patagonia, everything must be delivered by ship. That was one of the main reasons SOLIDWORKS chose the remote, stunningly beautiful location. “When we choose a location we always look at the local community,” explained Abhishek. “How can this fab lab potentially help the local people be more creative and do something for themselves, and possibly create an occupation out of it. Or how can the local children use the fab lab to get more inspired.” He added, “Instead of bringing whatever you need by ship from somewhere else, we thought why not help semi-isolated communities like Puerto Williams make whatever they want right there?”

It all relates back to ideas of self-sufficiency and turning straight consumers into producer/consumer hybrids, or prosumers. “If you produce what you want to consume and consume what you are producing, you’re creating a circular workflow,” said Abhishek. “It completes the loop of consumption, and it won’t be as wasteful as waiting for products to arrive from another part of the world.”

SOLIDWORKS is the Fab Foundation’s founding CAD partner and is committed to providing one seat of SOLIDWORKS to every single Fab Foundation-affiliated fab lab across the world, at zero cost to the makers. SOLIDWORKS is also committed to opening one fab lab in a remote part of the world every year with MIT, and sponsoring the equipment inside that lab. Previous SOLIDWORKS-sponsored fab labs opened in Rwanda and Bhutan. And Fab Lab Austral is just as high-tech and maker-ready as any other fab lab, regardless of its location. “We supplied them with laser cutters, a Tormach mill, wire cutters, 3D printers, everything” said Abhishek. “When there is a sponsor like Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS behind a fab lab, when MIT and the Fab Foundation set something up, they make sure there is a whole digital fabrication family of machines there.”

And the machines have already attracted locals. School children in Puerto Williams love coming into the lab and learning how to use the laser cutters, how to make small projects. Some current favorites are puzzles and animal figures that can be assembled together. Every local community has different needs. Sometimes it can take six months to a year for a fab lab to find its place and its purpose among the locals. It might turn out that, right now, the lab is popular among young school kids and teachers, but tomorrow, the focus could shift to something more industrial. The labs in Rwanda and Bhutan have already proven their worth to their communities, fostering cultures of innovation and collaboration. SOLIDWORKS is confident that Fab Lab Austral will have the same success.

When asked about the future of Fab Lab Austral, Abhishek became philosophical. “The beauty of the world is that the geography, history, and culture of a place creates a unique signature and identity for its people. When I went to Puerto Williams to work with MIT, I realized that everyone visiting there agreed it has a very strong signature, it’s very, very different from where we all come from. You can literally feel that in the air. So I’m certain that the projects and products that come out of there will have a very good combination of their own indigenous signature and the global sensibilities gained by working with powerful tools like the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform, SOLIDWORKS, xDesign and SWYM Communities. They’ll be able to build something unique and sustainable by accessing the same world wide web and resources that other Fab Foundation fab labs have access to. I’m very excited to see what happens.”

Fab Lab Austral’s opening was well attended, not only by SOLIDWORKS, MIT, and Fab Foundation employees, but also by interested locals, the Research Vice President of The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Pedro Bouchon, the mayor of Cape Horn, Patricio Fernández, and the Vice President of Research and Graduate Programs  at the University of Magallanes, Andrés Mancilla. Standing inside the little house at the edge of the world, they spoke of the future, of creating local solutions for their community, and bringing autonomy to an isolated city. But with the opening of Fab Lab Austral, and the world that opened with it, the small city at the bottom of Patagonia will not remain isolated for that much longer.

Thank you to Abhishek Bali for taking the time to talk about his experience with Fab Lab Austral and the Fab Foundation. All imagery is credited to Abhishek Bali. You can learn more about Fab Lab Austral on its website. You can learn more about SOLIDWORKS and its relationship with the Fab Foundation here.

Sara Zuckerman

Sara Zuckerman

Sara Zuckerman is a SOLIDWORKS Education Contractor, Social Media and Marketing. She has a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College and recently earned a Certificate in Web Development from MassBay Community College. Sara is excited about utilizing this blog to combine her two passions, writing and technology.