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5 Key CNC Machines in a Fab Lab

I talked with Clément today who is a French maker fully involved in projects related to Open Hardware. He is an active member of the FacLab, a cool Fab Lab in the Paris area. He is working with other makers to open a Fab Lab in his birth region, the Limousin. The name of the project is Limouzi Lab [Facebook page | Mailing-list].

Among many other interesting topics we covered, he pointed out to me some key questions that Fab Labs creators have to answer in the early beginning of their Fab Lab project: which machines should I get first? and should I open the space even though I don’t have all of them?

Today, I would like to give you a quick recap of the list of the recommended Fab Lab machines, as proposed by the Center for Bits and Atoms at the MIT Media Lab. I added a short description and example of what you can do with each of them.

A Laser Cutter

Laser Cutter Epilog

An Epilog Laser, laser cutter

Manufacturer: Epilog Laser

Cost: $25,885 (laser-cutter + ventilation system)

Laser cutters are among the easiest machines to use in a Fab Lab. A laser cut engraves or cuts a piece of wood in the shape you decided on the computer. The precision is usually very good: less than 0.02mm. Other materials are allowed such as acrylic, fabric, rubber, leather… Laser cutters will give your Fab Lab  a nice burnt wood smell, but you will also need to invest in a ventilation system.

Things that you can do with a laser cutter could look a lot like this:

Laser Cutted product

Wooden Hand Bowl Kit by PenfoldPlant – CC by-NC-SA

A Router

A ShopBot Full Size Tools – PRSalpha Series

Manufacturer: ShopBot

Cost: $22,158 (ShopBot Closed Loop + Dust Collector)

CNC routers are machines that makers are absolutely in love with. Many decide to start with a ShopBot. When I met Jillian and Jeff from Because We Can, they showed me their ShopBot. They told me that they decided to invest in this machine in the first place because it is fast and versatile. A ShopBot is a CNC router that is excellent for woodworking, manufacturing, prototyping, creating furnitures, music instruments, signs or boats… They come in many sizes and features. You will need a dust collector to go with.

This desk has been designed in 3D by Because We Can and send to the ShopBot:

Lobby desk inspired by hit game Death Jr designed by Because We Can for BackBone Entertainment.

A 3D Printer

Z Printer 650 3D prints in multiple colors – Company owned by 3D Systems

Manufacturers: 3D Systems, Stratasys-Objet, EnvisionTEC, Makerbot Industries, Ultimaker.

Cost: From $1500 to $15,000 (and much more)

3D printers are very useful machines to own in a Fab Lab. As you might know, 3D printers exist since the end of 1980. They have been mostly used in the industrial world. Manufacturers are now proposing 3D printers for smaller prices. Home printers like Makerbot or Ultimaker are more and more used in Fab Labs because they are now more reliable and precise. They still offer less possibilities than industrial 3D printers manufactured by 3D Systems, Stratasys-Objet or EnvisionTEC. Selective Laser Sintering (solidification of powder with a laser) or stereolitography (solidification of a liquid polymer with a pulsed laser) give excellent details results.

The 3D printer will create your design layer after layer. Like these shoes for example:

3D printed shoes using Selective Laser Sintering.

A Milling Machine

MDX-20 by Roland, a portable scanning and milling machine

Manufacturer: Roland

Cost: $5,000

At the difference of 3D printers that work by adding material, Milling machines subtracts material. They can make a great variety of prototypes and products such as cases, jewelry, light metal mold, …

Mold created by a Roland Modela Milling Machine

A Vinyl Cutter

Desktop Vinyl Cutter – Model GX-24 by Roland

Manufacturer: Roland

Cost: $2,100

Vinyl cutters are perfect for making signs, stickers, apparel decoration or vehicle graphics. Materials can be as big as 27.5 inches (70 cm) for a Desktop model. Vinyl, heat transfer, sandblast or paint mask work just fine.

Vinyl cut apparel and vehicle decoration


If you have the project of opening a maker space, don’t think that it’s a requirement to get all these machines before the grand opening. In fact, most spaces start with nothing or just a few desktop machines such as a home 3D printer and a laser-cutter. Adding these machines step by step seems to be the norm among grass-root Fab Labs.



Full Fab Lab inventory (including tools, supplies and sales contact) from MIT Media Lab available here.

Fab Labs overview by the think tank La FING – a world tour of Fab Labs (with advices and stories from Fab Labs members):

Cover Picture: Fab Lab DC – Lasercut construction by Kash Bennett

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