Fab-in-a-Box is a research and development project led by the Fab Foundation, in collaboration with the Center for Bits & Atoms at MIT (CBA) and SOLIDWORKS of Dassault Systèmes. Its aim is to broadly expand access to digital fabrication tools for technical education and innovation in schools and learning communities around the world, both equitably and affordably. The concept itself represents a revolution in the global Fab Lab movement and a leap forward in the push to ensure that the 21st-century workforce is flexible, agile, and, above all, technologically literate.
A compact platform with capabilities like 3D printing, vinyl cutting, and CNC milling—a machine that also supports the design and creation of new digital fabrication machines—Fab-in-a-Box will come equipped with essential materials, a Chromebook, and easy-to-learn design software, as well as extensive STEM project guides and curricular activities for instructors and learners. The entire package will ship in a single box made of reusable packaging that transforms into the Fab Lab workspace.
Suchit Jain, Vice President of Strategy & Business Development of SOLIDWORKS & 3DEXPERIENCE WORKS at Dassault Systèmes, joined us at FAB23 Bhutan last month, where he announced the exciting news of the Fab-in-a-Box collaboration. We caught up with him after the event to learn more about his organization’s role in the project and what he hopes it will achieve.
Fab Foundation: When we last spoke, you were discussing the difficulty involved in bringing groups of students from a school to a Fab Lab or makerspace. Obviously, Fab-in-a-Box solves that problem directly, but what other challenges might it address?
Jain: As I mentioned, the first major concern is making sure that the right tools are available in the learning environment. So, this is what the MIT folks are working on—making a form factor with a single machine that can perform multiple functions. Another part is the software, which will come from Dassault Systemès and which essentially helps students design whatever comes to mind.
However, a lot of times technology is available, but teachers aren’t familiar with it or don’t feel comfortable incorporating it into their curriculum. So, we’ll also be developing course and curriculum guides tied to education standards, which is very important. We have to reduce barriers to access, both for students and teachers. We want to make sure that this doesn’t feel too overwhelming. Because, ultimately, this is about getting broad adoption in schools and other learning spaces. And then, of course, we want to make this a good, sustainable ecosystem.
Practically speaking, what’s required to make that vision a reality?
Money is always a big concern, especially in the public education system. Dassault Systèmes has provided the initial hardware R&D funding to CBA in the collective desire to make Fab-in-a-Box affordable. The goal of the project is to be able to distribute these kits for under $5,000 each. But even that amount is out of reach for some communities.
Our hope is to expose as many learners as possible to this technology. We’re not social activists; we’re just trying to provide a catalyst for learning. We want to make the technology and the curriculum and everything available, and then, hopefully, it spreads from there. The question becomes, how do we get to the next level of adoption? At the end of the day, educators have to adopt. The good thing is, the teachers we have talked to are very interested; they’re excited. So, we’re working on a pilot program right now, hoping to begin with about 20 schools.
We’re also considering alternatives to school-based sites, like libraries. Nearly every town in the US has a library, sometimes multiple branches. And a lot of them have been making a real push to remain relevant and helpful to students. If you put a makerspace in the corner of a library, that becomes a very interesting outlet, especially in underserved communities around the country. The whole concept of Fab-in-a-Box is conducive to project-based learning—which should be part and parcel of every STEM activity—in almost any environment you can imagine.
What excites you most about this project?
The whole concept! But there is a unique aspect to this project that’s especially exciting. You have powerful Chromebooks and cloud-based software, which can run from anywhere. The software and the curriculum is all “living.” So, you can constantly update the machine; the box never gets old.
Also, it's a connected box. One of the elements that we provide is the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, which includes a connected community, much like Facebook in a way. So, right out of the box (no pun intended), everybody—teachers and students everywhere—can be connected within that environment. Just imagine what that could mean. Courses and curriculum could be delivered in this way. Individual classrooms could easily showcase their work to everybody else. And, because it's all available on the cloud, you don't always have to be sitting in the classroom; the design can happen anywhere. And all of your data is in one place.
What I'm talking about here isn’t just a vision; it already exists. SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids already has a classroom environment where each school can adopt it and enroll students. And we have run FIRST Robotics competitions with many teams on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. We have a mechanism in place where, once we launch this, we will have a way to deliver content to every school; everybody with a Fab-in-a-Box and connected Chromebook will be able to get content right off the bat.
Where does the project go from here?
We’re planning a Fab-in-a-Box competition, in partnership with Two Bit Circus Foundation, probably launching around November. This will hopefully inspire some of the coursework and curriculum that we’re developing. We know that students are very creative, but often, with standards-based activities, creativity isn’t prioritized. They may provide good learning opportunities, but they’re not always that engaging. So, we thought, let's run a competition to create something exciting for our new curriculum—a project or a lab exercise—which students and teachers using Fab-in-a-Box can then recreate in their own environment. The idea is to put this challenge out to the whole Fab Lab network with a restricted budget and the same environmental limitations as the Fab-in-a-Box kit.
Over the coming year, the various teams will be in production, working toward the launch of the pilot next summer. Ideally, we’ll be pulling in a number of Fab Labs and related organizations to increase the capacity to produce the machines. But we also need to be thinking beyond the next year; we have to look into the project sustainability aspect. For this to be successful in the long term, it requires money and a network and a real organizational effort. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen before, like with Fab Academy or Fabricademy or Bio Academy. Now, we're working with Fab Foundation to create a similarly passionate and dedicated Fab-in-a-Box team to take this concept and run with it.
There’s just so much potential with this project. I’m really excited to see where it goes from here!