The Manchester FabLab

On 16 July 2011 I wrote about Eddie Kirby's presentation on FabLab Manchester at the Daresbury breakfast meeting. A FabLab or fabrication laboratory is a workshop equipped with computer controlled machinery that enables users to make more or less anything. The Manchester FabLab is the first in the UK but there are already several other FabLabs across the world from the North of Norway to South Africa.

I visited the Manchester FabLab on 4 Aug 2011 and saw its facilities for myself.

Located on the ground floor of a brightly painted but rather forbidding Soviet style block of flats known as the CHIPS building at New Islington just to the east of the city centre, it is not easy to find and does not look much from the outside .......
..... but inside it is one of the most fascinating places in Manchester. I was shown a single room housing a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter and much more. I was also shown some of the artefacts that had been made with this kit such as a set of casters made as a single unit and a crackit bat
- a combination of tennis racket and cricket bat - that appears to have been invented by Matt King who plays rugby league for Warrington.

The first FabLab was established by the charismatic Prof Neil Gershenfeld of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a talk to TED filmed in 2006 Prof Gerschenfeld explained how the idea sprang from a course at MIT entitled "How to make (almost) Anything". The equipment used on the course was funded by the US National Science Foundation. As he explains in his talk, when one receives NSF money there is an outreach requirement which he sattisfied opening the FabLab to the public. In that spirit the Manchester FabLab makes its facilities available to businesses, schools, clubs and other organizations and members of the public at large.

It goes without saying that the Manchester and other FabLabs around the world serve all manner of useful social purposes from inspiring 8 year old schoolgirls to assisting individual inventors but for me the most interesting aspect of FabLab is its exemplification of what can be done with additive manufacturing technologies. I am very excited about these technologies because I believe that they could save manufacturing and hence our jobs and living standards in the West. When I canvassed that idea in "Is that really all we can expect over the next 10 years" on 2 Aug 2011 it was pooh-poohed immediately by Steve Roberts of Fripp Design and Research in Sheffield:
"As you well know the day of 'home manufacture' is a long way away. It is not a technology issue, it is economic:
1. Some of the materials used to make components is hazardous
2. Litigation; you download a 3D CAD file of a key brake component for your car, you make the part on a 3D Printer, you install it in your car, you lend your car to a friend and the friend gets killed because the component this complex supply chain scenario...who is liable for the failure, who goes to prison and who is seriously out of pocket financially

There is a lot of activity about 'home manufacture' on the 3d print forums...all being pushed by the 3D print manufacturers, of course

We own 3D printers and understand the limitation of the technology; because our design teams are all educated to Masters level in Rapid Prototyping. These stories make good press but bad business."
Well, we all know the jokes about Yorkshiremen and I actually live in Yorkshire. As a Lancastrian exile in their county I can disclose that they have an onomatopoeic adjective "maungy" which fits that attitude. Those stories come not from me nor even from the manufacturers but from respected academics like Neil Hopkinson of the Additive Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University and the aircraft manufacturer EADS which has made a bike using this technology. As I write this on the day that Standard & Poor downgraded US government debt after the stock markets of the world entered a tailspin on fears that the Eurozone is in danger of falling apart additive manufacturing is just about the only sign of hope about.

As an intellectual property lawyer I am interested in how designs for products made with additive technologies are to be protected at law. The point occurred to me while reflecting on the recent "Star War's Helmet Case" in the Supreme Court which I discussed in my blog for IP lawyers and patent and trade mark agents on 31 July 2011. Not s lot of people are thinking about this topic though I did find this very useful article by Simon Bradshaw and others on "The Intellectual Property Implications of Low Cost 3D Printing". I discussed some of those issues with the manager Haydn Insley while I was there.

One of the things Haydn and I agreed to do is to present an evening seminar on the legal issues for FabLab users in the early Autumn. This will be full of practical tips and absolutely free. It will include
  • an introduction to design, patents and confidentiality including design registration and unregistered designs,
  • PatLib libraries, clinics and other reliable sources of information,
  • the Intellectual Property Office, European Patent Office, OHIM (EU trade marks and designs registry) and WIPO (the UN specialist agency for intellectual property),
  • intellectual property professionals such as patent counsel, patent and trade mark agents and specialist solicitors;
  • enforcement in the Patents and Patents County Courts, Chancery Division mediation and other forms of ADR;
  • access to investment and loans through angels, venture capital, banks and CDFI; and
lots of other useful information.

Just before I left Haydn asked for the URLs of my websites and blogs so here goes:
Finally, if you want a free 30 minute consultation with me or another IP professional contact me on 0161 850 0080 or through the NIPC Clinics website at


Jane Lambert said…
I have just had the following response from Steve on Linkedin:

"Lets get a few facts right

1. It is Fripp Design and Research, not Frick
2. I'm not a Yorkshireman (but have lived there more than anywhere else!)
3. We are using additive manufacturing techniques (3D Printing) developing new ways of manufacturing prosthesis. We have received funding in excess of £600K, from the likes of the Wellcome Trust, to develop these products (and we're partnered with two leading UK Universities; who, by the way, have come to us to help research and develop this...not the other way round)

So I would argue that I, and my company, are experts in the use of these technologies, their uses and their limitations.

My point is, all the hype about making products, on the fly, make great press but no business sense and, those with a vested interest (including the manufacturers and academics), need to apply a sense of proportionality to the potential uses of additive manufacture (3D Printing).

3D printing is great for prototyping, great for creating one off components and it is great for creating visual art; but it is years off being considered a replacement for traditional mass manufactured products/parts, manufacturing methods and manufacturing businesses.

The story I told is meant to be hypothetical...but the reality is you could make parts for a car on a 3D printer today (my business partner has already done this for a cosmetic component in his classic Porsche)...but don't ever ask me to drive a car where a critical component has been made that way...and to those who think I'm maungy...I challenge you to prove me wrong"

As you can see I have corrected the name of his company and apologize for the error. I know the company from its excellent presentations to the Sheffield Inventors Group and I have a very high regard for Steve and his colleagues. I can attest that he knows what he is talking about.

Secondly, I am grateful for his taking the trouble to comment on the subject.

He makes a very good point that there would be product liability and other safety issues if we also started making motor or other safety critical issues components at home but I don't think that's
the proposal.

As I understand it, safety critical products would be made by specialist companies to the same standards using the appropriate materials but these businesses would be located near the customer.

The technology is not ready yet but it seems that folk are working on it.
Jane Lambert said…
Michael Chijoff from Australia made the following comment in the Intellectual Property Professionals Group discussion in LinkedIn:

"Hi Jane,
We also have a newly established Additive Manufacturing Centre in Melbourne run by RMIT. As the owner of an industrial design firm its great to see these technologies being explored more and more. It will only be a matter of time before we see machines at a price point that will make current manufacturing techniques outdated. Now this may be 10 years away but, as with sustainable design, the sooner we engage with these technologies the sooner practical applications become a reality.

The IP challenges that come from this will be interesting to see. But never the less we see this as a huge potential for design and one that we're personally heading towards. Keep the updates coming."

Thanks for your helpful comment but there is a contrary view on this technology which I have quoted above. It would be interesting for you and Chris to address each others' points since you are both expert in this field.
Jane Lambert said…
James Oldham of P1 Technology Ltd. at the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham said on Linkedin:

"I;d like to make a few points on RP Technologies being used for manufacturing products. I have been involved with RP for many years and have made components from SLA and SLS technologies that have been fitted to cars and other products (although none critical as in brake components) when I was working for a company called REACT in Rotherham in 1998 to 2003. All the well known names in Automotive, medical and electronics around the world are researching into the use of RP technologies for many of the components they manufacture. Have you investigated the use of RP in the Dental and medical industries today? I think you would be surprised what is available already. If you are really interested your research on this subject should start with the manufacturers such as 3D Systems and Stratysis. Also look into the work that is going on in Loughborough University, ever thought RP technologies could build a house or an apartment block??

I was debating this subject of the use of RP for manufacture 10 years ago, the capability of the technology to make parts on the fly has been there for a long time but cost will alway be an issue and for mechanical or structural components the question will always remain; are they going to fail? For none critical parts and cosmetic products you have the IP issue. Several years ago Bausch + Lomb had a pilot product for manufacturing sunglasses but it never got off the ground because of the IP and legal issues of ownership in the design rights.

The likes of Phil Dickens at Loughborough University and Phil Reeves at Econolyst are people who lead the way in research and forward thinking for RP, if you want to know what is really going on for the future of RP contact them. The centers called "FabLab" is nothing new, same technology, although a little more refined, more material choices including metals and cheaper."