Students at The American University in Cairo (AUC) recently launched a FabLab, an engineering workshop or laboratory space equipped with tools and machines for digital fabrication. For two years, mechanical engineering majors and FabLab founders, Mohamed Ragab and Abdel Rahman Shalaby dedicated themselves to gathering funding for the opening of the lab at the University and discussing logistics with different members of the community.The project is part of the Mechanical Engineering Association (MEA) and the lab itself is entirely student-run, overseen by a technical team of mechanical engineering students. The team is responsible for monitoring usage of the lab, handling maintenance of the machines and training newcomers on how to properly operate all tools and machines. Each visitor to the FabLab must complete certain sets of hours in order to be able to use the machines without team supervision.
This addition to the campus can be a useful supplement to the classroom experience for AUC students. “The FabLab expands and provides many opportunities,” said Ragab. “You never know what someone can come in and create. This will increase creativity and extend the boundaries of thinking when it comes to designing and discovering new processes.”
All FabLabs around the world share designs and documentation for their projects, allowing other labs to download materials and research how to conduct their own projects.
As a part of the accredited FabLab community, every lab is required to complete one major project every six months. “The most famous projects that are undertaken by all FabLabs at least in the first year are called ‘RepRap’,” said Ragab, explaining that the ‘RepRap’ project involves the technical team replicating a machine already in the lab. “Machines often get overwhelmed when FabLabs first open, since the space draws many people very quickly. Replicating one of the machines expands the capacity of the lab. It may not produce the same quality, but it can help.”
What remains is to attain accreditation by MIT, home to the first FabLab. In order to achieve this, the FabLab team at AUC will need to obtain two more of the necessary machines. Accreditation will allow AUC entrance into the FabLab community, an invitation to the annual conference held in a different city around the world as well as access to a course titled How to Make Almost Anything. “We think this course could be very useful at AUC,” explained Ragab. “The course basically traces the entire thought-process behind creating something and rapid prototyping, detailing the cycle of designing, implementing and redesigning to make corrections.”
The FabLab is a non-for-profit entity. While the team does need to charge for use of the space, all money is poured back into the lab and used to buy materials and support projects. The lab has already begun operating, opening its doors to several students already making use of the machines for their courses and theses.
A shared passion for mechanical engineering is what brought the two student managers together. “When we met each other, Abdel Rahman was working at FabLab Egypt in Dokki,” recalled Ragab. “We got to know each other through our mechanical engineering interests and considered the idea of developing a FabLab at AUC for some time.”
The biggest challenges for Shalaby and Ragab were securing funding and finding a space. “I remember we were originally given a three-minute meeting with a group of professors to make our proposal,” shared Ragab. “We ended up staying for more than an hour, answering questions and discussing plans. They showed a lot of support for our ideas. This support from the University and faculty was essential in making the FabLab a reality.”