The Fablab: Experiences and strategies for developing, maintaining, and teaching in a digital fabrication lab

Presented by: Marlo Ransdell

The integration of digital fabrication equipment into education contributes to learning and creative inquiry by providing students with authentic explorations of designed 3D objects (Johnson, Adams, Cummins, Estrada, Freeman, & Ludgate, 2013). Digital fabrication involves creating an object from a digital file through the use of additive and/or subtractive manufacturing processes (Pryor, 2014; Lipson & Kurman, 2013). Additive process machines (3D printers) extrude material that builds layers from the bottom up to create a finished 3D printed object. Subtractive process machines (laser and CNC machines) utilize flat sheet goods to cut 2D patterns that are assembled into 3D objects. Both additive and subtractive machines provide distinctly different approaches to designing, planning, and constructing objects for learning. Digital fabrication use in higher education has been previously confined to specialized fields such as: architecture, industrial design, jewelry design, and civil engineering (Pryor, 2014). However, an exploratory report on the future of higher education technology projects significant increased use of digital fabrication tools over the next 4 years in “art, design, manufacturing and the sciences to create 3D models that illustrate complex concepts or illuminate novel ideas, designs, and even chemical and organic molecules” (Johnson,, 2013, p.5). Widespread adoption of 3D printing and the like is fueled by the significant price reductions that make equipment easily available (Pryor, 2014; Eisenberg, 2013; Johnson,, 2013; Lipson & Kurman, 2013). Further, the integration of equipment is not only seen at the college and high school level, but is currently being implemented in primary school education for young children (Eisenberg, 2013). As the availability and integration of this equipment increases for current and future students, so do expectations of use and access to digital fabrication within learning environments. This presentation outlines the following strategies for educators on common issues and considerations(over five years)of developing, maintaining, and teaching in a digital fabrication lab. Strategies for developing a digital fabrication lab or adopting equipment range from 1)selecting appropriate equipment and software, 2)assessing infrastructure demands, 3)planning a start-up and operation budget, 4)overseeing equipment set-up, to 5)understanding equipment opportunities and limitations. Further, guidelines for maintaining the lab and equipment focus on 1)keeping the lab and equipment in safe and reliable working order, 2)providing supervision and training on equipment, 3)understanding equipment maintenance needs, and 4)planning a material and parts budget. The strategies presented for teaching with the assistance of digital fabrication equipment include 1)selecting equipment based on pedagogy needs, 2)assessing student understanding of basic fabrication prior to digital fabrication interactions, 3)providing training on equipment and software use, and 4)inspiring innovative and meaningful learning experiences. Finally, this presentation will include instructor and student experiences paired with examples of digitally fabricated work. The digital fabrication lab serves academia in a teaching and learning capacity, beyond that of a standard production facility. This designation places specific demands on the development and maintenance of the lab and equipment. This presentation provides an overview of issues and considerations along with strategies for the development, maintenance, and teaching goals in a digital fabrication lab for education.


  • Eisenberg, M. (2013). 3D printing for children: What to build next? International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction. 1,(1), 7-13.
  • Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Cummings, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A., & Ludgate, H. (2013). NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
  • Lipson, H. & Kurman, M. (2013). Fabricated: The new world of 3D printing. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley and Sons.
  • Pryor, S. (2014). Implementing a 3D printing service in an academic library. Journal of Library Administration. 54, (1), 1-10.