The world of open source “making” has arrived in the Wairarapa in the form of a high-tech laboratory designed to turn people’s ideas into real objects.

One of only three in New Zealand, the Masterton Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) is part of an international sharing movement which helps people turn their designs and digital files into actual things. It’s part of a global network of around 600 Fab Labs affiliated to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who all openly share ideas and resources.

Founders John Hart and Kirsten Browne have created a high-tech classroom full of “maker” magic where a replacement part for a plastic switch, a maquette for a sculpture or a full-size table or desk can be created using one or more machines controlled largely by free software. The Masterton Lab has a network of computers connected to five 3D printers, a laser cutter and a large CNC machine which creates items from wood.

Currently seven local schools are trialling the Fab Lab as an extension of, or replacement for, their in-house tech classes. “We work alongside the teachers; it’s important that the curriculum is met,” says John Hart. With their limited budget, schools are the mainstay of the Fab Lab but John can see a time when community groups will attend workshops, in the manner of the community education organisations of old. The classroom is also able to work remotely with schools outside Masterton, upskilling teachers and accepting files via email for making objects in the Lab. “We’d like to be able to reach every school in the region.”

John Hart’s background is 20 years in IT and farming a small block in Kumeu. He and his wife Karen now maintain an organic sheep and beef property outside Masterton. The couple chose the Wairarapa after visiting friends here and deciding it was a better place to start a family than Auckland. They now have two young daughters and no regrets. John is the hands-on man at Fab Lab.

Co-founder Kirsten Browne is the strategy and communications person. A talented designer, she freelances for local businesses as well as bringing up her children in Masterton. Kirsten and John worked together on the recent Masterton Gigatown promotion and the Fab Lab idea grew from that experience.

One of the impressive things about Masterton Fab Lab is Kirsten’s fresh, graphic environment and the beautiful furniture, the designs for which came from an open source design repository called Opendesk with the finished product made by John in the Lab.

Their space in the Wairarapa Times Age building is also available as a meeting area or classroom. A more formal co-working office space is planned with the hope that it will lead naturally into a business incubator. “We envisage some real cross-pollination when artists, business people and others have ready access to the equipment and can actually create what they have in their minds, then collaborate to get the item to market.”

The objective is to be self-funding within two years and in the meantime the pair is very grateful for the generosity of many local businesses and funders. Each Fab Lab is a flavour of its particular community, explains John Hart. “We’d love to see this one really reflect the Wairarapa, whether it be ideas for farming projects or whatever, so local interim support is critical.”

Ultimately, the driver for the Fab Lab is to get people making things. John believes that we have slowly lost the habit of making things ourselves and that this new, digital world removes the barrier of not having the craft skills to do that. He also sees it as a democratisation of manufacturing. “With two bits of free software anyone can design something and create a file which we could potentially make in the Fab Lab. Our job is to facilitate that.”