Fablab Kamakura: learning in the land of the Giant Buddha
Published 16 February 2016 by Cherise Fong
Every Monday morning, one hour’s train ride south of Tokyo and just a few kilometers from the famous Giant Buddha, Fablab Kamakura opens its doors to the public. Since 2011, East Asia’s first fablab occupies this restored traditional Japanese house.
Kamakura, special report
Monday at 9AM, a dozen people assemble at the Fablab Kamakura house. Even before the introductions, the rags, brooms and garden gloves come out, and everyone gets to work. Some stay inside to tidy up, clean and sweep, but eventually everyone meets outside to clean up the ivy creeping over the concrete steps.
At 9:35, the plenary session of Morning Fab commences by going around the table. A newcomer begins Fab Basic, a three-month program to learn to digital fabrication 101. To her left, a longtime regular (and engineer of the Fabwalker robot) is experimenting with different filaments using the resident Afinia 3D printer. His neighbor shows samples of UV prints of Mount Fuji on paper-thin wood sheets. Another retired engineer runs one of his crawling robots, which wins everyone’s sympathy when it fails to climb a step with its rear-wheel prostheses.
Another senior member announces his project to program a soccer game… in Scratch, MIT’s simplified programming language. Matt Krebs, PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Kentucky in the U.S., comes to Morning Fab every week to follow the various projects and dynamics of the little community. Mio Kato, fabmaster and Fab Academy graduate, talks about the upcoming Fusion 360 workshop for 3D design…
The antique house, built in 1889 by the architect who occupied it for a period, still breathes through its apparent wooden beams, old-fashioned gas stove, ladder-like stairs and loft-like attic. The big white doors open out to the street like a human vault releasing more than a century of memories, secrets and knowledge.
Founded in May 2011 by professor Hiroya Tanaka, father of fablabs in Japan and designer of the OCPC, and visionary academic Youka Watanabe, organizer of FabLearn Asia, Fablab Kamakura is particularly well developed in the field of education.
It’s the only supernode among the four fablabs that support the Fab Academy in Japan (with Sendai, Hamamatsu and Kitakagaya). In Kamakura, the weekly MIT lecture is projected live every Wednesday night from 11PM to 2AM, with local tutoring by Fab alumnus Mio Kato. This year, Kamakura supports three Fab Academy students, and plans exchanges with Taiwan. The lab also offers three levels of basic training in digital fabrication, to prepare those interested for the technical and international intensity of the Academy.
Youka Watanabe, cofounder and fabmanager, emphasizes the global aspect of learning: “Here we care about building people’s capacity through collaborative work, new challenges, and a platform for learning and making that leverages the global network. Japan is like a tiny island, we want to push people to open their eyes to other countries. We exchange ideas, but also people.”
In addition to two open labs each week (Monday morning and Wednesday night), as well as technical classes to learn how to use the laser cutter and 3D printer, Fablab Kamakura regularly organizes training for companies, after-school programs, and has just launched a Fab Night dedicated to makers aged under 18. Since July 2015, Fablab Kamakura is a certified Global Stem Learning Association, member of the international network spearheaded by the New York Academy of Sciences.
Upstairs, a calm atmosphere pervades the active coworking space, which is currently shared by four people, including Kuniaki Sento, Fusion 360 expert working on a sharp 3D model of a dinosaur jaw, and Masakazu Otsuka, computer engineer who launched a start-up to sell his IRKit, a palm-sized open source wifi infrared device that lets you remote-control your domestic appliances through your smartphone. These diligent coworkers were handpicked and personally invited to share the space in exchange for a moderate monthly fee, and especially for sharing their specialized knowledge and skills.
At 11AM, two interns from Keio University present the results of their research at Fablab Kamakura over the past three months. Yuri, second-year student in computer graphics and jellyfish-lover, appreciates the concept of personal fabrication, but evoked the potential obstacle for non-product designers of instinctively using these various CNC machines. Kondo, another student from Keio’s Faculty of Environmental and Information Studies, took the initiative to make samples of 3D printed patterns, leaving behind a practical tool to help future lab users visualize and compare. These samples will also contribute to Fablab Kamakura’s ongoing and conscientiously documented Fab Tools project.
At 11:45, the closing session (this time in English) gives everyone the opportunity to assess how they spent the morning—giving way to smiles of discovery and shared laughs in an atmosphere of mutual interest, support and respect.
A few of the seasoned engineers, already pleased to share their projects and receive feedback, will support Night Fab on Wednesday, which is generally attended by young professionals, who may be less experienced makers.
“Given Japan’s aging population, young people need other skills, and mentors. These senior engineers have lots of technical knowledge when it comes to making things. The question is how to pass it on to the next generation—not just as a hobby, but as a new way of learning, working and living.”
Youka Watanabe, fabmanager
Fablab Kamakura website