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The Fablab | A place to make yourself

The Ecole Polytechnique’s Fablab spurs innovation and entrepreneurial spirit among students and researchers. It is a place to reflect on ideas, to realize them, and to call on the range of expertise within its walls when you need advice and guidance. Those walls also contain more than 1000m2 of hi-tech machinery dedicated to creation, and to the emergence of a new self-making generation. In this environment, students create their own prototype, assisted and encouraged by Aline Becq (FabLab Manager) and Gareth Paterson (Head of 3D Modeling), a maker with half a century of experience of making in all its forms—physical and virtual.


An inspiring self-taught maker

Gareth grew up in Nottingham, where his journey as a designer-maker began. He first picked up a scalpel fifty years ago, using it to convert balsa and tissue into flying models. Since then he has never stopped designing and making, beginning his professional career with Norman Foster’s architectural practice in London.

He has also followed an academic career, teaching at the Royal College of Art in London, the German University in Cairo and Lund University in Sweden, as well as researching the physical basis of creativity as a Postdoc at the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden. His most recent professional experience, just before joining the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, was working as an algorithmic designer for Bugatti on La Voiture Noire. At the FabLab, Gareth spends most of his time trying to combine and to pass on what he has learned from these apparently different worlds of traditional making and virtual design. More specifically, he tries to help students by setting up formal training sessions, and lectures on CAD (Computer-aided design) and Grasshopper 3D, as well as working alongside them.




“We do an initial training session, which is about 1-2 hours, in which we do the very basics—like how to just get started. Then, students come back with their own project, and we teach them through that project, rather than generic exercises. Thus, they can define and clarify what they need to do and how to achieve it.”


[…] You become autodidact, you can teach yourself.


A designer should carry a proactive vision of making, to validate or not his assumptions by a continuous experimentation: “This FabLab gives you the ability to learn by making. You start to be involved in this design cycle, which means beginning with making, defining your needs; then correcting, clarifying again… So then, you become autodidact, you can teach yourself.”


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Two projects developed in the FabLab


An Elbow Orthosis with soft robotics


An orthosis model made by Valentin and his team


Valentin Ogier is a 2nd year student at the Ecole Polytechnique. He and his 4 teammates are currently working in the X-Fab on a long term practical project, the PSC (Collective Scientific Project).
“The central idea of our project is to create a medical device that will assist the elbow motions of the patient. It will surround and enclose the elbow, and, thanks to actuators above and under the elbow, will help bend and extend the arm. When you imagine a robot, you visualize it as rigid, and made of metal. Rigidity can be a strength for high-precision tasks, like surgery. But rigidity is not always suitable for ‘biological’ interactions. Inspired by the biological world, soft robotics brings a form of flexibility and compliancy into materials, improving the contact between humans and robots, and avoiding potential risks. The way our device interacts with the patient is our major point of focus. More specifically, our device should detect a patient’s intention to initiate a movement. It will measure the pressure in the hydraulic actuators and assist the movement when detecting fluctuations.”

The prototype is divided in three modules: an electronic and control part, made of sensors and an Arduino board; a syringe pump, activating the flow movement; and a mechanical part, made of hydraulic actuators which will effectively bend or extend the arm.
“We are making good progress on the electronics part, using an Arduino board connected to a stepper driver controlling the stepper motor. The stepper motor activates the syringe pump that we are currently working on. That’s the part the FabLab helped us on mostly. Then, the syringe pump—controlled by the Arduino board—injects water into silicone bags and increases the pressure inside them. As the pressure increases, the silicone actuators fold or unfold, helping the arm bend or extend.”


The syringe pump designed in the FabLab. Screws and hip stems (in grey in the left picture) assemble the 3D printed pieces (in red).



“In my opinion, the principal strength of the FabLab is not only its material wealth,
but also its ability to adapt to our project.”


“Mentors in the FabLab (such as Aline Becq, its Manager) are really helping us implement the project. First, they suggested a topic, but also put us in contact with a researcher at INRIA (National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation)and expert in soft robotics. He has brought his expertise in modeling compliant materials, which was quite new for us. But in order to use the Fablab, you must first take a formal training session with Aline or Gareth, which enables us to progress through all the stages of the conception and manufacturing process: modeling, using a slicer, setting up the 3D printer… They are always there in case of problems. They tell us which are the right gestures and which should be avoided, advises us on the best materials to use. He also helps in the post-printing process—all the do-it-yourself part, the laser cutting, the filing, the drilling… In my opinion, the main strength of the FabLab is not only its material wealth, but also its ability to adapt to our project. »


Friction forces in rowing

Antoine Dode is a 1st year PhD at LadHyx, the hydrodynamics lab of the Ecole Polytechnique. Passionate about physics and sports, he currently works with the FFA (French Federation of Rowing) to reduce friction forces on the boat.
“The idea is to understand how we can act on the shape of the boat to reduce friction forces and to achieve better results in competition. So, to this end, we need to create a full 3D model that we can modify, and, added to additional simulations, see how we can impact a particular parameter: the added mass coefficient. This coefficient mainly depends on the shape of the boat, and is implicated in a resistance to acceleration which is called the added mass force.”

So, several weeks ago, Antoine borrowed a single scull (a rowing boat designed for a single person), then installed it in the FabLab, and started to scan it. He managed to learn on his own, assisted by notes prepared by the FabLab team, how to use the DAVID SLS 3D scanner: “There is a spotlight and a camera. The light projected on the boat is captured by the camera, which can deduct and rebuild the surface of the boat in 3D. After several times, you just have to superimpose the scans like a puzzle, and you can see on the computer a 3D image of the boat.”



The DAVID SLS 3D scanner used by Antoine


But for Antoine, this was just a first step: “Now that I know how to scan properly, the next step will be to scan a FFA boat. The shape should change slightly, it would be a bit longer than the single scull. Fortunately, in this FabLab, I have access to large rooms for my boat, to the 3D scanner and 3D printers.” “Gareth showed me first how it works, but I’ve carried out a thorough approach, and I give him feedbacks about what I find out. We really have a mutually beneficial relationship, it’s all about give and take.”