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Fab Labs
Jamais Cascio, 1 Sep 04

It's not often that the future reveals itself to us in the form of a pink key chain.

The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT engages in research on "personal fabricator" devices -- machines able to make a wide variety of physical objects out of base materials. The Center's classes "How to Make (Almost) Anything" and "How to Make Something That makes (Almost) Anything" are wildly popular. But the Center has a bigger mission than just transforming material production: they want to help people in the developing world use these advanced technologies to solve local problems.

To this end, the Center for Bits and Atoms has developed the "Fab Lab," $20,000 worth of material design and fabrication equipment which can be used nearly anywhere. Six Fab Labs exist, each with a particular focus on local needs: South End Technology Center, in Boston (building community wireless networks); Lygen Alps, in Norway (building larger-scale wireless networks and animal collars to aid nomadic herding); Vigyan Ashram, in India (building agricultural instruments); Bithoor, in India (building 3D scanners and printers for local artisans); TEC, in Costa Rica (building educational tools); and the Takoradi Technical Institute, in Ghana. It's at the Takoradi Technical Institute that flourescent pink key chains have become the most popular fabricated item among the young students. But that's not all they build:

Beyond key chains, the Ghana lab is working on practical projects including antennas and radios for wireless networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. Each of these activities was developed in collaboration with local users, ranging from street children to tribal chiefs, to address the most important local needs.

The labs are well-equipped (especially given the low cost), and the goal is for them to be able to produce the same set of equipment for another lab -- in effect, to become (very slow, human-aided) replicators:

“Instead of bringing information technology to the masses, the fab labs bring information technology development to the masses," Gershenfeld said. "For our education and outreach efforts, rather than telling people about what we’re doing, we thought we’d help them do it themselves. We’ve been pulled around the world by the voracious demand we've found each time we’ve deployed a fab lab.” The fab labs provide an accessible approximation of the tools CBA has on campus, and over time, [CBA Director Neil] Gershenfeld said, components of the labs will be replaced with components made in the labs until eventually the fab labs themselves are self-reproducing.

Each fab lab comes equipped with computer-controlled fabrication tools, open-source computer-aided design and manufacturing software and associated electronic components and test equipment. Capabilities include a laser cutter for 2-D and 3-D structures, a sign cutter for plotting interconnects and electromagnetics, a 3-D precision milling machine for applications such as making surface-mount circuit boards and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed embedded microcontrollers.

The Center for Bits and Atoms was launched in the Fall of 2001, supported by the National Science Foundation. The Center's Annual Reports give a good overview of each year's efforts, both in research towards personal fabricators and in the development and deployment of Fab Labs. The three reports -- from 2002, 2003, and 2004 -- provide well-illustrated guides to the cutting-edge of fabrication technology and the uses it can have in the developing world.

I have to say, when I first read this article, I got a bit dizzy: fabricator systems will be useful in the West, where material goods markets are well-established and relatively efficient, but they will be utterly revolutionary in the developing world. The Fab Labs are, at best, a Version 0.1 of such future fabricator devices, but the important story here isn't the hardware, it's the combination of research expertise and social intent demonstrated by the Center for Bits and Atoms. They are in the early days of completely changing the world.

(Found via Cyborg Democracy)

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Yeah, talk about leapfrogging!

Um. we're not interested in your hand-me-down automotive assembly line, mister -- we're already fabbing hybrid three-wheeler engines out back...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Sep 04

Perhaps this is more important than we realize. Now that oil is peaking, local self-reliance, including local production of basic material goods, will become increasingly important. Professor Ted Trainer from the University of Technology Sydney pointed out years ago that everything we need, including light bulbs, can be made locally by a relatively small workforce with time left over for leisure. Technology such as this is a step in that direction - as is the home sewing machine, of course. I would love to hear more examples of this kind of technology.

Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 1 Sep 04



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