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FabLab comes to Bhutan

Main story: In an era where developed countries are witnessing a leap in technological advancement, Bhutan won’t be left far behind. With state-of-the-art technology to design and create products, the first ‘FabLab’ will be established in Thimphu next summer.

The FabLab or fabrication laboratory will be equipped with high-tech digital fabrication equipment such as three dimensional (3D) printers, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, small computer numerically controlled (CNC) mills and big CNC mills, which can create anything ranging from a customised cup to a house.

The project is led by the technical designer of FabLab Bhutan, Tsewang Lhundup, founder of the FabLab Asia Network, Yutaka Tokushima of Keio University in Japan and the Project Associate Professor of Keio University, Dr. Tamoaki Watanabe who were in the country for a week.

The team were in the country to meet stakeholders and to turn FabLab Bhutan into a reality. They conducted a baseline study on what the stakeholders expected from the project.

FabLab is a workshop or a studio offering digital fabrication. The lab is equipped with an array of flexible computer controlled machines and tools that can make ‘almost anything’ through projects that can be undertaken individually or by groups, Yutaka Tokushima said.

“In simple terms, one can design and print objects of any material including 3D objects. The products are manufactured or produced from machines that are controlled by computers. A FabLab will comprise of six basic FabLab equipment,” Yutaka Tokushima said. “One can design and print objects of any material through these equipment at the lab.”

Prosthetic leg can be made through 3D scanning of foot in a FabLab
Prosthetic leg can be made through 3D scanning of foot in a FabLab

The FabLab Bhutan will be open to public but we expect local communities, researchers, social entrepreneurs and business communities to make prototypes before entering into mass production, Yutaka Tokushima said. “With the help of other FabLab users around the world, local users can learn how to make their ideas come true.”

FabLabs have been established in several countries and has now grown into a global network of local labs enabling product invention and innovation. The FabLab network provides educational and technical assistance with other labs in different countries, one lab can share the knowledge, data and network with other labs globally, Yutaka Tokushima said.

“We also hope artists avail the services to find new ways of expression through these electronic devices. To sustain the lab financially, we are planning to conduct workshops and service programmes as well,” Yutaka Tokushima said.

Yutaka Tokushima set up the first FabLab in Philippines when he worked there as a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer three years ago. The FabLab Bohol was formally founded in May 2014 in the premise of the Bohol Island State University.

After our weeklong visit and conducting various studies, we are now focussing on developing curriculum for the trainers and the location for where the lab is going to be set up, Tsewang Lhundup said. “We are yet to finalise the office space and the number of initial participants at the first FabLab Bhutan.”

JICA Bhutan’s Chief Representative, Koji Yamada, said for example, a pen case made out of wood is produced in India today but the raw material such as wood is already available in Bhutan.

“With the FabLab, one can not only produce such products but also customise them, thereby, reducing reliance on expensive imports. People can avail the lab to not only produce pen case but also electric circuit to noodle making machines, thus appealing to small and varied markets. Such production requires less industrial infrastructure than conventional manufacturing,” Koji Yamada said. “The possibilities are endless. It is one step closer to making Bhutan self-reliant.”

In the Philippines, Tokushima and his team have initiated the research on a low-cost prosthetic foot customised for persons with physical disability, Koji Yamada said. “The same can also be made in Bhutan through the 3D printer machine. A lot can be done through the lab and look into issues that developing countries faces.”

fablabgraph

It is my dream to see not only one FabLab but also many in the country. We in JICA will find more ways to make more such FabLabs in the country with the start of the first lab, Koji Yamada said. “If there are similar labs in the remote areas, they may turn to be a centre for local citizens and young tech geeks to gather and interact to make grass-roots innovations. I want to urge young people to ‘be prepared’ and think of what to make once the lab is established.”

There are challenges such as the initial cost for installation of desk-top fabrication equipment, high-speed Internet access in the remote areas, and development of human resources who are able to operate the machines, to name a few, Dr. Tamoaki Watanabe said.

“Despite such setbacks, there are potential users and use age in Bhutan. The FabLab Bhutan can produce ultrasonic sensors to repel wildlife from damaging the crops that could positively impact the local communities. Farmers can lead a better life and look after multiple farmlands by one person. Not only that, with the lab, we can modify the design of rice shredding machines to make it more efficient for the Bhutanese farmers,” Dr. Tamoaki Watanabe said.

With the research and the meetings we have conducted with various stakeholders so far, we can see that the FabLab can bring various developments and changes that could positively affect the local communities, Dr. Tamoaki Watanabe said. “We hope to contribute lasting solutions and services through the FabLab Bhutan.”

The FabLab programme was started in the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), collaboration between the Grassroots Invention Group and the Centre for Bits and Atoms (CBA) at MIT.

The programme has spread to 200 different locations over 50 countries. FabLab in Europe and U.S. are most noticeable because a number of FabLabs have been set up in these areas.

Interesting examples of technologies developed in Middle Eastern, Asian and African FabLabs:

• Farmer’s measurement equipment for managing hygiene

• Freshness and fat-content of milk

• Solar LED light that can be used in non-electrified villages

• Cooking equipment of solar power generation that does not use firewood

• Equipment for carrying radio waves of wireless LAN into the village that do not have Internet

• Sensor to check the status of water application to the field

• Equipment to repel the stray dog by transmitting ultrasonic sound waves

• Prosthetic legs made through 3D scanning of foot

Info courtesy: www.fablabasia.org

Thinly Zangmo

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