Finally…the Fab Lab is Here!
By: Bahar Kumar
January was a roller coaster month at Nepal Communitere with the culmination of two years of hard work and persistence to finally launch the very first Fab Lab in Nepal. There were many times that we were about to give up and I myself would think…maybe “Nepal is just not ready for true tech and innovation.” But then there were staunch champions such as our tech guru Ben Spencer who would gently tell me “Bahar we can’t wait for Nepal to be ready.” I thought I’d share the story behind Fab Lab Nepal with all of you and a glimpse of what was involved to bring this army of elephants from MIT in Boston, Massachusetts to the doorstep of our Nepal Communitere hub in Pulchowk, Lalitpur.
The Fab Lab Nepal team celebrating the arrival of the equipment!
Do we even need a Fab Lab?
So as a lay non-engineering person, I wanted to really understand and make sure we needed a Fab Lab in Nepal – and that Nepal Communitere was the right organization to host it. We applied our go-to approach of conducting design thinking research – engaging with engineering students and entrepreneurs to deeply understand their pains and gains around digital fabrication skills, product design, development and prototyping. We conducted nationwide demonstration sessions to gauge community interest and even held a Design Sprint to see how interdisciplinary teams would come together to co-create innovative products and solutions. We met with other champions working in this space like Kathmandu University’s Design School, National Innovation Center, Karkhana, MakerValley, Utopia, our friends at De’Sign & Print, CNC Craft, ZenerTech and Kazi Studios and many more… We kept hearing – YES, YES, YES across the board! The ask from them was clear:
- Students said…We need an accessible digital fabrication lab to help apply theoretical engineering and manufacturing skills, to get our hands dirty.
- Entrepreneurs said…Nepal needs a lab for rapid prototyping and sampling of our products.
- Product designers and developers said…We need a lab that has all the equipment under one roof so we can quickly move from one piece of equipment to another – from 3D printing to CNC cutting to molding and casting. Apparently this work requires you to be agile and quickly move from one thing to the other, with multiple iterations.
Why did it take so long?
Back in 2019 when we decided, ok let’s move forward – our pillar partner Field Ready hustled to broker relationships with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and the Dassault/Solidworks Foundation to start the process. They had already set up Fab Lab Bhutan and recognized the need in Nepal as well. We estimated 8 months to one year but were not prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Nepal Communitere is a Nepali not-for-profit distributing company. Rather than being incentivized to build financial sustainability and not be donor dependent, we deal with a bureaucratic nightmare navigating both the SWC and CRO. They couldn’t understand why we were working on this project instead of the municipality – we asked the same question! They created a revolving cycle of “we need this, we need that, you don’t have this and you don’t have that.” Our team was ready to give up. We’re a small organization, not a big INGO, UN Organization or Embassy that has the resources, capacity or experience to import over $100,000 of state-of-the-art digital fabrication equipment into Nepal. And we talked to these organizations for support and advice, but they would eventually say “Good luck…this won’t be easy.” We quickly understood why no other organization had taken on bringing this kind of lab to Nepal. With the help of an amazing legal advisor and the Nepal Communitere and Fab Lab team that hustled endlessly with numerous sleepless nights to get the necessary government approvals from SWC, Ministries, Dept of Commerce and Customs. The Fab Lab finally landed on our doorstep on Friday night Jan. 22, 2021!
The Communitere team helping with unboxing and labeling the long list of Fab Lab goods.
What did it cost to import this equipment?
Even though the SWC and various Ministries were presented the Fab Lab Nepal as a community-based resource center for learning and skills-building – we were treated as a factory ready to launch production in Nepal. Our electricity rates automatically increased. We tried desperately to get a reduction in our import customs and duty which was futile. At the end, we had to dish out 30 lakhs in customs and duty fees to import $90,000 USD of supplies and equipment. Had it not been for international stakeholders and donor partners like Field Ready, MIT, Solidworks Foundation and UKAID Nepal, who recognize the critical need and value of Fab Lab Nepal, this would not have been possible. I think it’s important for our community of users to know that this is the type of collaboration and partnership that was required to bring this resource to Nepal.
Gridlock trying to get all of this equipment out of TIA and Customs
I’m sharing this to highlight how “innovation” and “skills-building” can not just be something we discuss endlessly in Nepal. We have to begin to create a relevant infrastructure that brings together diverse users – from Nepali migrants, school drop-outs, women, differently-abled people, to engineers, entrepreneurs, artists and BOLD changemakers into an inclusive and accessible space to collaborate on solid solutions. We know that the Fab Lab Nepal will unleash some pretty cool stuff!
What equipment is actually at the Fab Lab Nepal?
You’re probably wondering what main equipment will be at the Fab Lab…I’m going to try and list them here.
- CNC Shopbot
- Precision Milling
- Vinyl Cutting
- Digital Embroidery
- Laser Cutting (this elephant will come later in February)
- Molding & Casting
- 3D Printers
- Computers for Coding and VR
Give us a few weeks to unbox and “wake up” the machines and then we’ll start to open up the Fab Lab for workshops, booking use of the space, and coming in for Open Fab Lab days. For now, you can reach out to [email protected] if you want to volunteer to set up the Lab or have questions about using the space once it’s open.
Our ASK of YOU…
Running the new Fab Lab Nepal will require loads of community buy-in and participation. Now that the Lab is here we need to bring in like-minded partners from the private and government sectors to ensure its sustainability.
We ask that you read and share this Concept Note with 5 individuals or organizations you think should KNOW about the FabLab Nepal and ask them to join this vibrant movement!
For more information about Fab Lab Nepal partnerships and institutional memberships please contact [email protected].