The University of New Mexico became the latest RhinoFabLab last week (see announcement). With recent coverage of TechShop (some of it right here), I was reminded that RhinoFabLab concept has been around for quite some time.
I sought out Robert McNeel, CEO of the company by the same name that makes Rhino. Bob tells me RhinoFabLabs started out as and still serves as a online support group for Rhino users who need to fabricate their designs, especially the more challenging ones.
"The online Rhino user community has always been an important part of what you get when you buy Rhino," says Bob. "With RhinoFabLab (www.rhinofablab.com) we are just trying to make it easier to find information and/or the Rhino users that are most involved in the nitty gritty of the fabrication."
"With RhinoFabLab, we are also trying to make it easier for Rhino users to find the fabrication experts willing and able to help them get started with digital fabrication."
"20 years ago, this was done with online bulletin boards. Now we have the Web. The tools have changed," says Bob. The tools Bob is referring to are the online tools, not the laser cutters, drills. lathes, etc.
"But is RhinoFabLab more than an online community? What about the machine shop, like the one in University of New Mexico," I ask impatiently.
"Right, so for the last 2 years or so, we have been certifying machine shops," says the ever-patient Bob. Indeed, to get a RhinoFabLab logo, you have to fill out an application and undergo an inspection. First of all, to be certified as RhinoFabLab, A shop must also be affiliated with an official Rhino training center. "We wouldn't want to put our name on it and then find out that no one there knows what Rhino is."
What's the difference between RhinoFabLab and others, namely TechShop, or FabLab-inspired workshops?
"Well, clearly we cater to the Rhino user," Bob tells me. "Also our users are actually using the labs in actual production of parts. At FabLabs, they may be making using their shop to make shop tools. TechShops may be making model airplanes or boats. RhinoFabLab users are actually making parts for the actual boats themselves."
"Of course, hobbyists and tinkers are welcome," Bob hastens to add. "Especially those that appreciate industrial grade processes and tools."
So, for Bob the lines are clear. The other shops are used by hobbyists and tinkers. Rhino users are into serious manufacturing -- or architecture, as in the case of UNM.
Different, but to some extent, similar. Like the FabLabs inspired by MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, RhinoFabLabs uses "tools that cover the various leading-edge industrial methods and materials needed to design, analyze, and fabricate almost anything." This according to the Rhino site.
The emphasis on manufacturing may explain why most RhinoFabLabs are overseas. I see only 2 in the US, but several in Latin America. There may be more in Europe and Asia but at the time of this writing, I was not able to see them on the RhinoFabLab website.
"You have to go where the manufacturing is," says Bob. "Just not a lot of it in the US."
Are RhinoFabLab open to the public, thinking of TechShops "gym membership" model?
"To the extent that they are in schools which are public institutions," says Bob.
"Will the shops have only Rhino products?
"We don't have any restriction on what type of organizational structure is behind a RhinoFabLab," Bob says. "Of course, there is no reason for them to sign up if they don't want to offer some kind of services to the general Rhino community."
"Will you tolerate Inventor being used?" I realize I may be goading Bob. Autodesk is McNeel's competitor. But I must know. Autodesk's almost overwhelming support of TechLab threatens to crowd out competitive products. Will RhinoFabLab play that game?
"We realize people use other software," says Bob. "We don't demand exclusivity in RhinoFabLab. We understand that people need many software products to design and build products. RhinoFabLabs are open just like everything Rhino related. Open support forums, open files formats, open SDKs, etc."
Find out more about RhinoFabLab, including how to get certified as one, here at http://www.rhino3d.com/arfl.htm