FabLabs in Kerala prep an entire state for a digital revolution in manufacturing

Shivam Srivastav July 3, 2017 5 min

Recently, the New Indian Express newspaper carried a short report about a 34-year-old woman suffering from oral cancer who was getting a 3D-printed maxilla (lower jaw) made of acrylic material thanks to doctors from Thiruvanthapuram’s Regional Cancer Centre. The maxilla, fabricated at the city’s FabLabs unit, was ready for implant in just four days, the doctor leading the surgery said.

But what is FabLabs? The fabrication arm of the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM), it’s a chain of workshop units that started life in 2015 and aims to make digital fabrication and 3D printing technology a mainstream reality.

Digital Fabrication is not a term used with as much enthusiasm as other new age technology buzzwords such as Big Data, Cloud Computing, Machine Learning or AI. However, this technology, which includes in its ambit 3D printing and laser cutting, can revolutionise the way we manufacture goods using technology, by making machines that can reliably be programmed to make consistent products from digital designs, eliminating the need for specialised equipment for different use-cases.

The Kerala FabLabs mission, an extension of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms’ outreach programme, is trying to popularise this technology by building engagements in the community across multiple levels by building engagements with startups, enterprises and academia.

Digital modeling and fabrication is a process that connects design with production through the use of 3D modelling software or computer-aided design (CAD).

Kerala, which was the the first state in India to sign up with the Fab City movement, has two large FabLabs in Kochi and Thiruvanthapuram, which are accessible to medium/small enterprises, startups, and professionals like the doctors from the cancer hospital.

the FabLabs unit in Thiruvananthapuram, in collaboration with trainees at TCS, has also developed smart infant care incubators for premature babies  

Apart from the fabricated jaw, the FabLabs unit in Thiruvananthapuram, in collaboration with trainees at the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in the city, has also developed smart infant care incubators for premature babies. The main unit is the infant care unit modelled in computer aided design software and the parts were cut using a ShopBot CNC tool (ShopBot is a US-based company that makes machines and parts for 3D printing; CNC is a tool used in prototyping and production for cutting, carving, machining and milling in wood, mdf, plastics, foams, and aluminium). The control and monitoring systems were developed using Arduino, the open-source hardware platform used for building electronic projects.

Fablabs Trivandrum
Young makers at the FabLabs unit in Thiruvananthapuram

The Thiruvananthapuram lab also helped a biomedical startup EveLabs create an infusion monitor called Dripo using a 3D printer.

However, it’s not just serious medical stuff this technology can be used for — one user, Farhana, made wedding cards for herself using a laser cutter. The use cases are diverse.

A Smart Infant Care incubator prototype made using 3D printing

“You can use a 3D printer for just Rs 35 an hour at the FabLab,” says Vinod Kumar, manager, FabLabs. “We are a non-profit organisation, we are focusing on new innovations and making them accessible to people.”

FabLabs also provides a two-year digital fabrication course spread over four semesters. The program is based on MIT’s ‘MAS.863 HTMAA (How To Make Almost Anything)’, a course developed at MIT focussed on providing a hands-on introduction to designing and fabricating smart systems.

The FabLabs course lays emphasis on building a portfolio by the students that documents their mastery and integration. These are reviewed by their local instructors, regional gurus, and then centrally to ensure that each student meets global standards and follows evolving best practices.

Watch a video about FabLabs:

The ‘mini’ version

The Kerala Startup Mission has a wide network of 193 colleges and FabLabs is using this presence to help establish mini FabLabs in colleges across the state. There are already 20 Mini FabLabs in colleges in Kerala and there are plans to add another other 50 by the end of 2017.

The purpose of the Mini FabLabs is to provide a curriculum on digital fabrication to students  

So what are these Mini FabLabs and what can you expect to find when you walk into one?

Contrary to what you may expect, the list of equipments is quite impressive. There are laser cutters, 3D printers (they use 3D printers to make mini 3D printers for a fraction of the cost, as low as Rs 15,000 — something like this), vinyl plotters and sand blasters.

The purpose of the Mini FabLabs is to provide a curriculum on digital fabrication to students, which is vetted by professors from MIT and will also be aligned with the curriculum of Kerala Technological University. The curriculum integration discussions are in the final stage with KTU and is expected to be implemented soon.

“Every student will learn how to build products and prototypes which will complement their academic learning. It can potentially revolutionise the attitude towards digital fabrication,” says Saji Gopinath, CEO, Kerala Startup Mission.

The diploma is earned by progress rather than the calendar, for successful completion of a series of certificate requirements. Some of the graduates have also gone on to teach other students.

Saji says that the aim of the organisation is to create such infrastructure at multiple levels. The technologies are aimed at pushing people to get into product technology and ensure that graduates are ready when they come out of college.

At a time when reskilling and new technology are invading every aspect of the IT industry in India, FabLabs could play a crucial role in meeting some of the challenges of the future.

Going forward, the organisation is planning to implement metal cutting and printing technology and is in talks with MIT regarding plans to launch a super FabLab in Kochi, which will include these advanced facilities.


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