New breeds of factory floors known as makerspaces are democratising manufacturing, enabling grassroots tech movements across the globe to design solutions to the global health crisis.
Nestled in Melbourne’s gritty port and industrial precinct, FAB9 has been part of a wave of digital manufacturing spaces across the globe, which have rapidly mobilised to fill critical medical equipment shortages, as part of the fight against COVID-19.
Headed by former Silicon Valley executive Hans Chang, FAB9 has focused on re-purposing its rapid prototyping operation to produce face shields locally.
“Makerspaces are a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation and are fundamentally bottom-up, deeply engaging the local community for problem solving,” Chang says.
“The sums are bigger than the parts. The global maker community has responded to the COVID-19 crisis quickly and open source designs of personal protective equipment (PPE) allow innovation to happen much faster.”
In more conventional times, FAB9’s major focus is providing entrepreneurs with access to tech including CNC routers, laser cutters and 3D printers, all on an affordable membership basis, so they can design, build and commercialise products.
The makerspace movement is seen as a critical component in Australia’s march towards Industry 4.0 – posited as the new dawn of manufacturing, being ushered in by emerging technologies, such as automation, 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
Global consultancy, PWC is predicting Industry 4.0 to drive massive global growth and upheaval, with digitalisation and smart automation expected to add 14 per cent (US$15 trillion) to global GDP gains by 2030.
While the shift poses risks and challenges to established industry players, it offers immense opportunities for startups to capitalise on the efficiencies and customisation potential created by emerging technologies, according to FAB9’s, Operations Manager, Michelle Thomas.
“Essentially we exist to bridge the gap between designers and makers and realising and testing their product ideas, prototyping their design ideas, testing them and seeing if they are working or failing and trying again,” Ms Thomas says.
Mr Chang says emerging technologies’ customisation capabilities are a potential game changer, providing smaller operators with ground breaking niche manufacturing options, where individual orders can be made just as efficiently as larger runs.
“The ultimate goal would be that batch one can still be very high value, highly customised, without change of infrastructure,” he says.
“3D printing, additive manufacturing is a big one, it’s not just machines, it’s also information systems and digitisation of manufacturing.”
Corporate and startup collaborations
Mr Chang believes makerspaces aren’t just about moving startups towards commercialisation, but creating a two way flow, which brings corporates into the startup and entrepreneurial space.
“What we are finding is that there is no focal point for hardware innovators, so for example corporates, if they want to look for new ideas, new innovators, startups to work with, a lot of times they don’t know who to talk to, so we become a conduit, connecting corporates with innovators or people with ideas,” he says.
Government must do more
And while there is considerable opportunity presented by industry 4.0, Mr Chang says government must create better incentivises for startups looking to commercialise their products.
He believes improved financial and regulatory support will greatly enhance makerspaces’ on ground objectives of helping gestate innovative ideas into real world products that meet customer demand.
And while technology, financial support and regulation are all critical components in the path towards successful commercialisation, Mr Chang says what’s most crucial is that the fundamental product concept addresses customers’ needs.
“Sometimes the risk that startups have is they are holding on to the ideas and they are trying to perfect them in a conceptual way, before they are creating hardware that proves the concept, so to make stuff, testing the products, see if they work, to reiterate the design and test it again.”
“Entrepreneurs have to find a niche – solve a problem for one person, really focus the energy and really understand the problem statement, fall in love with the problem, not the technology.”
And FAB9 has found its niche as part of global efforts to solve the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We would not have been able to conceive and launch a new PPE face shield product within a week if it weren’t for the different open source designs from other makers and companies,” Chang says.
“Governments should work with the private sector to solve the PPE supply chain problem together.”