“Companies talk a lot about strategy, the need for innovation and rapid prototyping. But they don’t let management – or people within the organisation with know-how and ideas – actually do it,” says Ben Moir. “They look for a silver bullet: they hire an innovation manager or send the management team on a tour of Silicon Valley.”
Moir, director of Snepo, a leading-edge developer of interactive software and hardware systems, is more in favour of handing CEOs a soldering iron and sitting them at a community workbench.
In 2017, Snepo spawned a publicly accessible laboratory for rapid product creation and problem solving, joining the Fab Lab Network, an initiative of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Bits & Atoms Fab Lab Program. “Each year we invest our profits in a gamble or a prediction about the future,” says Moir, whose team is behind projects such as the engaging displays of Albany’s award-winning National Anzac Centre and an interactive wayfinding system that helps people navigate Royal Adelaide Hospital. “Our clients expect us to know what’s coming.”
In 2016 Moir decided that the next worldwide innovation would be “a product that builds products”. He tightened his belt in anticipation of building a highly sophisticated technology space, packed with whizz-bangery, where start-ups, communities and businesses could partner to share and prototype ideas. Then his research unearthed the existing Fab Lab Network. Officially launched in 2009 as “an open, creative community of fabricators, artists, scientists, engineers, educators, students, amateurs [and] professionals”, as described on its website, the Network’s aims are to “democratise access to tools” so that people can “make almost anything” and test it.
For an initial set-up cost of less than you may expect, Snepo Fab Lab Sydney is now one of about 1000 Fab Labs across 78 countries, equipped with the same kinds of enabling technology. Among them, a computer numerical controlled (CNC) mill that spits out multiple circuit boards, a 3D printer or two, a workhorse laser cutter that rapidly cuts materials such as plywood and acrylic into housings for product prototypes, and software such as SolidWorks, a computer-aided design and engineering program licensed by Dassault Systèmes to Fab Labs.
The point of standardising the technology in Fab Labs is that intellectual property, software and product designs created in any one Fab Lab can be used or improved on in any other Fab Lab in the world to solve problems – fast!
In unemployment-wracked Spain, for example, Fab Labs have been set up at the heart of community blocks to provide technical literacy and digital fabrication skills to people of all ages. The outcome is that local residents design and manufacture street furniture and play areas for children, build, monitor and care for community gardens, as well as create the solutions to local needs.
“We’ve done a lot of work on disruptive thinking and preparing leaders for disruption. You can absolutely get an expert in disruption to come and teach leaders, but its’s always a struggle to translate that back into the business. So we’ve worked with Ben and the team at Snepo Fab Lab technology in a more tangible way, and ultimately take actionable ideas and concepts back to the organisation.”
James Aris, Marketing and Innovation Manager at Maximus
A critical requirement for any Fab Lab to be accredited by MIT, and therefore to access the Fab Foundation’s open-source materials, is that it be open to and actively partnered with the public. “That’s where the cool stuff happens,” says Moir. He cites Airbus Fab Labs, known as ProtoSpaces, where company employees work alongside university students, technologists from communications and automotive companies, as well as inventive members of the community: “Of course, Airbus has engineering workshops, but they’re not places where people can go and just play, or work on really out-there ideas; nor can Airbus let the public in there, for safety and other reasons.”
In the first year of operating its ProtoSpaces at various Airbus facilities, the program hosted meetings and workshops attended by 14,000 people and produced 2800 prototypes.
Moir says that a space where internal know-how can partner with fresh external input, away from formal development processes, can generate the extraordinary for commercial organisations.
Just one project to come out of the Airbus ProtoSpace is a re-imagining of air travel: aircraft fit-out modules – sleep cells, entertainment modules, children’s play areas, gyms – which can be rolled in and out of the aircraft shell to configure it for different routes and passenger needs.
At Snepo Fab Lab Sydney, Moir is trialling numerous projects with different collaborators. He partnered with the University of New South Wales to develop a reliable, inexpensive air-quality sensor that anyone – say, communities who live around the new WestConnex motorway in Sydney – can come and manufacture, to monitor changes in their environment. “Instead of costing $2000, it can be made for less than a couple of hundred dollars,” says Moir. “People can take one of our pre-made sensors – it measures light, noise, pollution, air pressure, temperature, humidity and dust particles – or use our open-source instructions and equipment to make their own.”
Moir is leveraging international Fab Lab knowledge to help a corporate executive on the cusp of career change to develop holiday science-education programs for children. He’s also prototyping a Snepo project for Scienceworks museum in Victoria. A black-hole simulator, its remarkable touchscreen (made of flexible fabric) lets kids poke their fingers into the depths of space. And he’s partnering with Maximus to bring the creators, the makers, the inventors out of Australia’s corporate woodwork.
Most frequently, Moir says, companies are stuck in a rut of top-down management, incapable of giving their latent innovators licence. “There’s an incredible amount of knowledge sitting with front-line employees because they’re the ones who understand the customer.”
A huge amount of effort and thinking goes into every article we publish and we’d like to say thank you to Natalie Filatoff for contributing to this article.
This article was originally published in the 1st edition of M Magazine, an exclusive print magazine aimed at inspiring and driving change through Australia’s executives and heads of HR.
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