Last week, we had the pleasure to meet Marc Lambaerts who, with the help of other people, runs the Fab Lab in Leuven.
The Fab Lab in Leuven is one of the oldest and biggest Fab Labs in the world in terms of the number of people that come in. They have been in existence for about 10 years and realise around 10,000 projects a year. In regards to space, they are not the biggest but are in the process of acquiring a new building, which will give them the space needed as the popularity of this lab is vastly increasing.
The Fab Lab in Leuven has all the tools necessary to run an efficient lab dedicated to 3D technology: laser cutters, CNC milling machines (small and big), sticker cutters, small cutters, robotics and about a dozen FDM machines. The labs FDM machines are lent out to schools only in order to really teach kids how to 3D print. About 5-6 of the FDM machines are kept operational with the lab.What is interesting to note were the differences between Leuven’s Fab Lab and the other labs within Belgium. The determinant factor which sets them apart is the number of people they help within their lab. The Fab Lab in Ghent, for instance, realises about 2,000 projects a year while Leuven realises 5 times this amount. This gap is due to the available machinery that most labs do not have.
Another aspect is that Leuven is a very knowledge drive city. Leuven is a student city where there are too many students and therefore much knowledge in a very small part of Belgium. This is the “smartest square mile” of Europe so to speak. Students are eager to be a part of these digital fabrications that are made possible in our labs. We have a very good reputation of being able to do more than most of the Fab Labs in Belgium.
The Fab Lab in Leuven has seen everything in its lab: students from the University College Leuven Limburg (UCLL), small business projects, entrepreneurs and almost all the architects within the Flemish region can be found working here. On the other hand, a completely different target group, a kindergarten teacher who wants to teach children the difference between big and small will come and build a teddy bear in various sizes for demonstration purposes. It is very diverse.
This Fab Lab was started initially in the department itself because when students needed to complete projects with hand tools like scissors and knives, the school realised this was no way to teach current engineer students within the 21st century – an upgrade was needed. Students come into the lab as they realised the Fab Lab offers them a service. Marc often finds himself taking on student project challenges. A challenging project he recalls is the designing of a 3D print head in a 3D printer for the 3D printing of cells, stem cells. Students working in the lab often ask “what went wrong” with their project which is a frequent but normal question. Students explain what they want done and Marc finds himself giving his input because of his experience in the 3D printing and designing. “There is still a big gap regardless of our popularity because there is no course in the entire university that gives lessons for 3D printing. They learn how to design but not specifically for 3D printing”, he explains.
Marc believes that the 3D printing market in Belgium is very strong but unknown. “We have very big and/or strong companies but not a lot of people know them. As a Fab Lab, we work very closely with Fab Lab Namur. They bought lasers from us and whenever there is a need we contact them and vice versa. There seems to be this conception that there is a divide between the Flemish and the Wallonia region but that is just in the mind”, he states.
Leuven’s Fab Lab has great things in store for the future – more specifically, 2020. The Fab Lab plans to take the Fab Lab concept of “everybody is welcome to make stuff with the machines that we already have” and translate it to other kinds of labs. For him this means, “Do it yourself technology”, “robotics”, “brewing your own beer” …
The Fab Lab in Leuven takes prides in its involvement in their student’s education. “We are one of the few places where students can still do things, make mistakes – in Leuven or in Belgium there is this idealism that we do not accept mistakes. But that is what learning is all about. It is impossible to design correctly the first time. But students in theory believe if you do this, it will work automatically. And there is a big need to have a place where they can do these mistakes. We do not interfere with what students make nor do we question its relevance. That freedom is very important. Everyone wants to innovate but most places have you innovate with rules.”
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