makeLab™ blog

Pushing up in Albania and Kosovo by Jim Stevens
July 7, 2012, 1:35 pm
Filed under: makeLab @Large

The Academy likes to take credit for the successes of alumni – it validates our efforts.  We state specific data referring to job placement rates and earned income.  What we do not tout is the spirit and tenacity of our students.  This is because it cannot be easily measured and does not fit nicely into a statistician’s spreadsheet.  As faculty members, we can only witness it through the actions of our students.  This “spirit”, “entrepreneurial drive”, or even “grassroots effort” has become cliché in academia.  Regardless, it is exactly what built, and continues to build, the makeLab.  I was only able to succeed because I intrusted the students, gave them ownership and removed barriers when I could.  The rest was their own doing.

This same energy is very much present in the students of Albania and Kosovo.  Unfortunately, the economy, corruption, politics, and of course the continued aftermath of the war has slowed the support of this new-found youth and energy.  There are exceptions of course, POLIS University , Urban Plus , and many others I have yet to meet, fight for what the students need.  Despite the lack of formal support, the young designers are not discouraged and are pushing up ideas from below.  With architecture web portals such as , a message, and more importantly, a dialog about design is maintained.  Illegal architecture, an experimental architecture network, operates in much the same way and asserts in its name that all design in Kosovo is, in one way or another, illegal.  This spirit is also seen in the beautiful film Utopian Tirana by Ajmona Hoxha, Blendina Cara, Elis Vathi, and Klodiana Millona.  The short film is crafted by expert technicians but it captures the beauty of Tirana while showing the suppressed imagination of the young designers that dwell within it.

I witnessed their vitality first hand in the coordination of my lecture in Kosovo.  The lecture held at the University of Pristina was proposed, organized and implemented by Illegal Architecture and (+ countless others).  They requested and received funding from the US Embassy and secured the venue at the University of Pristina.  They marketed the lecture on the web, print media and even a morning news show interview.  My accommodations and transportation was coordinated in a way I would normally receive from an established institution.  All of this was done even when met with resistance from above.

The night of the lecture the students where nervous, they wanted everything to be perfect, I was calm – it already was.  The excitement they felt when the room filled to capacity and extra chairs were brought in was evident.  I say all of this because the significant moment for architecture in Kosovo happened before my lecture began; what I had to say was only informational.  The young designers who came together to make an event happen that they wanted was the significant event.

These students will become the future leaders and architects of the region.  I will return and help when I can, but I hope one day it is  just to have a salep and reminisce.


Yep, we did that – CNC running smooth in Albania by Jim Stevens
June 27, 2012, 1:46 pm
Filed under: makeLab @Large

It is official.  You can build a CNC, carry it on a plane halfway around the world and cut architectural components.  Today, the machine ran for hours and cut nicely with only a few hiccups.  As significant as the machine is and what it represents for our ideas about the digital vernacular, it is not the most important aspect.  What is however, is giving students the opportunity to make their projects digitally for first time.  The intensity in the room suddenly changed and the outcomes where no longer imagined, no longer meaningless; they were real and included all of the benefits and shortcomings of each design.

Today was a good day for makeLab.

suitcase CNC by Jim Stevens
June 21, 2012, 6:28 am
Filed under: makeLab @Large

The more we work within the context of what we call Digital Vernacular the more our decisions become clearer and our actions more intentional.  This academic year has seen many accomplishments, but without a doubt it has been the year of machine building.  Our design logic informs us that if a tool is to be vernacular, one must be able to make it on their own, with out the need for corporate or extensive outside expertise.  We blogged over the winter about the completion of the laser cutter, but this spring we have focused our efforts on designing and building a CNC machine that will fit inside a suitcase.  This is driven by one of three hallmarks of the vernacular – access to tools.

The question was asked: could we build a 3-axis CNC machine that could be checked on an airplane and carried anywhere in the world?  This of course would demand that the machine be less then 50lbs, stand up to abuse, and be easily setup and broken down.  Not an easy task.  As I write this, I am sitting in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and the Suitcase CNC  is presumably under the plane that will take me on to Albania.  Over the next two months, the machine will visit and cut out projects in Albania, Kosovo and France.

For anyone hanging around the makeLab, you know that this machine could not have been built without Natalie Haddad.  Many long days and sleepless nights to get this done.  Please take time over the summer to check in on this blog and our facebook page to see where the CNC (and I) may be traveling and what we are making.


POLIS Workshop 2012 + POLIS Study Abroad in USA by Jim Stevens
April 21, 2012, 7:28 am
Filed under: makeLab @Large

makeLab will be returning to POLIS University in Albania this summer to conduct two workshops.  One workshop will occur on two consecutive weekends starting 22-24 June with the final weekend 29 June – 1 July.  The week between we will also conduct a workshop from 25-29 June.  Additionally, we are very excited to announce that POLIS University and Lawrence Tech have signed an agreement permitting student exchanges between the Universities.  This will allow graduate students from POLIS to study with the makeLab in the USA.  See the attached brochure for more information or you can email me at if you have questions.

Weekend Workshop Wrap-up by Jim Stevens
April 19, 2012, 1:04 pm
Filed under: makeLab @Large

On the weekend of April 14th makeLab hosted a weekend workshop on “Designing Electronics for Architecture” where participants where exposed to the steps necessary to designing, programing and fabricating their own circuit boards. The initial task seemed simple enough, fabricate a board that controls a single LED with a light sensor.  Although many struggled with the micro-soldering, the system gave us insight to the potentials of this technology in architecture.

More significant than the new knowledge was thee realization that what we where doing touches most disciplines in design, building and technology.  Most exciting for us at the makeLab was the cross-campus representation from many different departments.  The Department of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics Engineering and Management where all where represented in addition to Architecture.  It was obvious that the energy, ideas, and possibilities are endless when working in a trans-disciplinary studio.

Finally, makeLab would like to thank Mercedes Mane, the visiting instructor, for the workshop.  Mercedes is an electrical engineer with background in controls, hardware design and embedded programming and a volunteer at the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab.  Mercedes made the weekend fun for all and we hope to do it again.

Fab7 Wrap-Up by nahaddad
August 25, 2011, 11:50 am
Filed under: makeLab @Large

The final days of Fab7 were stimulating as Wednesday followed the previous day’s platform in participating in two workshops, Thursday was the public Symposium, and Friday was the closing day geared towards concluding what was discussed as well as setting goals for upcoming year.

The workshops I attended on Wednesday were Building Big Things and Flight. Building Big Things was hosted by ShopBot’s Sallye Coyle. This workshop discussed the evolution of ShopBot and the unique ways in which users apply their machines. ShopBot’s user needs range from mass reproduction of a single item to unique one  time designs. The projects showed the array of materials the ShopBot is capable of milling. A few of the projects shown were picture reliefs, boats, Burning Man structures, and houses.

Flight was a very unique workshop to attend. The discussion began with the concept of DIY model airplanes and led into the idea of fab labs building full scale. There are a few fab labs within the network that have some experience with understanding and building flight machines. There were so many enthusiast at this workshop in which the creation of a new fab lab concept was built. The idea that different labs around the world can research and prototype certain components of flight and then those components can be combined in the building of a full, but small scale, aircraft.

Thursday was the public Symposium on Digital Fabrication. It was structured with four sections: Principles, Practices, Applications, and Implications. Most of the presenters were conferenced in through the Fab Lab Network’s polycom.  The Principles presentations were based on the idea of designing organisms with building blocks. The equipment used in this biological endeavor are built in fab labs, allowing for the equipment to be easily supplied to the masses as well as provided in academic research labs. This section closed out with a presentation by Chris Romes of Autodesk in which the direction and intent of Autodesk was displayed.

The Practices section began with a video conference with Chef Dave Arnold. He is using a modified 3d printer to create food. Not in the sense of reproduction of shapes, but with the intent of researching how a rapid prototyping machine could lead to a new way of cooking. The Ultimaker, a 3d printer that you can buy and build, was introduced and the creators discussed the process of its creation. This section also included another presentation on Making Big Things and an introduction to DIY Drones.

The Applications portion revolved around the use of the internet in the digital fabrication world. Your Personal Factory was presented by Derek Elley of Ponoko about turning your ideas into custom goods which can then be fabricated and sold for profit. Marc de Vink of Maker Shed followed with communicating how their site can help users create ideas at any stage of the design process. Not only does Maker Shed have loads of detailed project ideas, but it is also searching for any projects to add to the community, even at the conceptual stage. Zach Kaplan of Inventables introduced his site to the network and officially launched the Inventable’s Workspace.

The Implications section began with a bang as IAAC showed how Fab Labs have taken over the city of Barcelona and created the first ever Fab City. The plans were unveiled for multiple Fab Labs to be completed throughout the city as well as adapted into the school system. Their plan is underway with the intent to extend out of Barcelona to other areas once they are successful. Next, Fab Lab Iceland displayed Fab Lab Wiki and explained the site’s intention for displaying all information for and by fab labs. Links to all the information covered during this year’s Symposium can be found here.

The Symposium concluded with the Fab Academy Graduation and the Inauguration of Fab Lab Lima.

The final day of the Fab7 conference was Friday. In the morning, all the workshops for the week were briefly reviewed. This was followed by the announcement of the locations for Fab8 as New Zealand and Fab9 as Japan. The Final Fab Foos were topics to set goals and make modifications for the upcoming year. I attended a technical session where we discussed the different software used in fab labs as well as the different levels of labs based on a finance and equipment structure.

Fab7 was a motivating event to attend. I am eager to see the development through this current year and see how Fab Labs will adapt to the developments of this week.


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Fab 7 Begins by nahaddad
August 17, 2011, 12:30 am
Filed under: makeLab @Large

The Seventh International Digital Fabrication Conference has opened. The Inaugural evening consisted of an opening mixer at Lima’s City Hall. Fab Lab Lima was introduced and the conference attendees were addressed by the President of Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria, the Dean of Architecture, and the Mayor of Lima. The evening followed with an orchestra performance and multiple interpretations of traditional Peruvian dancing. The event at City Hall was closed with a trip to a large park filled with 13 interactive water fountains, which included an audiovisual projection based on images related to Peru’s culture.

Day 1 of Fab7 consisted of a State of the Network, presented by Neil Gershenfeld. This lecture provided the history of Fab Labs as well as declaring the timeline of the events in which led the Fab Lab network to grow to what it has become today. Every morning there is time for all Fab Labs to provide a brief presentation and show their unique contributions.

I attended the workshop held by Neil Gershenfeld, entitled Processes: CAD/CAM Workflow. During this session, we were given a tutorial of the open source CAM Software he is writing. This Software is still in development, but it allows for any format file to be transferred and coded for all of the Fab Lab equipment. The software as well as many other resources is available at the The Center for Bits and Atom’s Website.

The end of the evening was slightly less formal as it ended with Fab Foo. This time is dedicated to any topics that haven’t been addressed or those that have generated interest for further conversation. I attended the Fab Foo hosted by Zach Kaplan of Inventables. We discussed how material usage in projects could be shared and the site could be used to create a community in which people can share their frustrations as well as final products using the products the site offers.

There was also time to pay a visit to the nearly complete Fab Lab Lima. The lab is equipped with a ShopBot CNC, an Epilog Laser, HP Plotters, and an Electronics work area.

Day 2 of Fab7 Opened with more introductions to labs around the world.

The first workshop I attended was Processes: Subtractive Fabrication, held by Sallye Coyle of ShopBot Tools. She spoke about the specifications of using a ShoBbot CNC router and explained the capabilities of the machine. Proper tool usage, feeds and speeds recommendations per material, hold down techniques, and shortcuts in the ShopBot user interface were discussed. There was also an explanation of Vectric’s PartWorks program, which is a highly recommended CAM software design to output to CNC machines.

The Second workshop was Projects: Making Machines. This was held by Jonathon Ward, Nadya Peek, and Neil Gershenfeld. The main topic was discussing Nadya and Jonathon’s creation, the MTM Snap Lock. This machine is a snap together CNC milling machine. While it still has some tweaks to be made, the machine is almost ready to be commercialized and introduced to all Fab Labs. This closely follows MIT’s mission for Fab Labs to be able to recreate the machines we use in order to expand capabilities, eventually rendering machine manufacturers obsolete. This particular machine is controlled by an Arduino board and allows for the capacity of a 4” x 6” cutting space. Other machines in development by The Center for Bits and Atoms can be found on their site, Machines that Make.

Fab7 is well underway and there is a great excitement amongst the attendees as well as much talk of what is to come.

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