Almost overnight and everywhere, people with big ideas and small resources are changing the world:
• In Barcelona, Spain, a consortium of architects and scientists has built an award-winning, self-sufficient house that produces twice as much energy as it consumes.
• In Afghanistan, innovators are creating customized prosthetic limbs.
• At Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Minnesota, inventors are using 3D printers to develop specialized children’s eyewear and a device that helps disabled people open doors.
• In the UK, a student has designed an aquaponics system that enables people to grow their own vegetables at home and improve sustainability.
How is this revolution happening? Through the magic of fabrication laboratories, where entrepreneurs and inventors with good ideas gain free or low-cost access to facilities packed with digital fabrication tools, software and networks of advisers skilled in everything from 3D design to manufacturing and marketing, all eager to help bring the ideas to fruition.
WHERE IDEAS BECOME REALITY
Fab labs, as they’re commonly known, first emerged in 2001 as an educational outreach component of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). The center, led by director Neil Gershenfeld, focuses on finding practical applications for its research into digital fabrication and
Inspired by Gershenfeld’s concept, a global network of about 1,200 independent fab labs has popped up in 100 countries, providing access to the digital fabrication tools and expertise people need to rapidly make a prototype of almost anything and then pitch it to investors.
“MIT’s CBA saw personal digital fabrication tools – including laser cutters, computer-controlled milling machines and 3D printers – were becoming cheaper and more accessible, so we put a subset into small-scale workshops,” said Sherry Lassiter, president of the Fab Foundation, which coordinates the global fab lab network.
“We’re giving people the technology, showing them how to use it and challenging them to use their newfound skills to make something innovative that benefits their local communities,” she said. “Now we have a global community of educators, researchers and makers, and a worldwide program for empowering local invention and entrepreneurship, which doubles in size every 18 months.”
MAKING THE MAKERS
Finding innovators to use the fab labs is easy, thanks to the parallel rise of the Maker Movement. The movement was pioneered by Dale Dougherty, who in 2005 founded Maker Media and began publication of MAKE magazine.
The magazine provided the catalyst for a technology-influenced, do-it-yourself community, which has grown beyond its hobbyist roots into a market ecosystem powered by the internet and more affordable and user-friendly fabrication technologies. Today, thousands of makerspaces, online maker communities and annual local and international Maker Faires exist worldwide. In September 2017, for example, more than 90,000 people attended the World Maker Faire New York – and 45% were first-time visitors.
“Our goal is to encourage people to recognize how making can be meaningful for society and see themselves as makers,” Dougherty said. “Making is a mindset and provides a skill set that bridges the worlds of academia and work – what people learn from making can prepare them for the jobs of the future, or perhaps help them create their own job. Our makerspaces are almost the same as fab labs because they share a common mission of growing a community of makers who can work together to change the world. Several fab labs have even organized their own Maker Faires.”
CENTERS FOR COLLABORATION
At many fab labs, innovators work alongside peers and experts, allowing them opportunities to brainstorm and access to technical support and business advice as they test and refine their prototypes.
When Laurent Bernadac, an Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Toulouse-trained engineer and award-winning virtuoso musician, wanted to 3D-print a lightweight, ergonomic electric violin, for example, Bernadac found a fab lab that helped him locate the industrial stereolithography 3D-printing partner he needed for his project and created his investment campaign for crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.
“The fab lab’s approach is wonderful; it opens doors for individuals and small companies, introducing them to subcontractors or valuable contacts at big organizations,” said Bernadac, who is now selling his violins commercially. “Many companies helped me, and sometimes I still use the fab lab for less technical tasks, such as laser cutting.”
Daniel Heltzel, managing director of Germany’s FabLab Berlin, agrees that fab labs are an efficient place for
matching innovators with experts.
“Entrepreneurs can benefit from advanced troubleshooting and business advice so they can iterate fast and get timely, honest feedback from peers about their chances of success,” he said. “Meanwhile, established companies can meet new innovators and see how interdisciplinary teams take an unconventional approach to product development. They’re often inspired to change their own internal product development processes.”
A WIDER IMPACT
By making it quick, easy and affordable to design and create prototypes, fab labs are giving rise to a range of modern cottage industries, particularly beneficial in less economically developed countries.
In East Africa, for example, FabLab Rwanda is using digital fabrication to boost the country’s competitiveness in design, engineering, electronics, fabrication and high-tech. So far, the lab has helped about 30 entrepreneurs with projects that include building prototype solar vehicles, a drone and a facial-recognition robot.
“Rwanda is rebuilding its economy by investing in its people, and our fab lab plays a key role in empowering students and entrepreneurs with the hardware skills and software knowledge they need to turn innovative ideas into products,” said Miriam Dusabe, the fab lab’s general manager. “Not only do we give people the skills to start their own businesses, but we also help to generate more creative and productive engineers who will bring Rwanda closer to the Internet of Things era, thereby spurring the country’s economic development.”
EMPOWERING THE NEXT GENERATION
Fab labs also are popping up at schools and universities as platforms for project-based, hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. FabLab Singapore Polytechnic, for example, helps students from Singapore Polytechnic explore potential applications for digital fabrication and learn technical skills that can be transferred to the workplace.
“We want our students and staff to become a community of inspired makers who can confidently use digital fabrication to bring ideas to life and tackle future challenges,” said Steven Chew, the fab lab’s manager and a senior lecturer at the polytechnic.
“We also train secondary school students, provide further education courses for external adult learners and work with industry players. We’ve helped innovators to make dental prosthetics, an internet-based solution for optimizing growing conditions for mushrooms in Indonesia and a low-cost, underwater and automatic-guided vehicle, which won a regional competition.”
A NEW AGE OF PERSONAL DIGITAL FABRICATION
Characters in the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” used a replicator to dematerialize matter and then rematerialize it as whatever object they needed, from meals to clothes and machine parts. While real-life scientists are still a long way from matching that ability, personal digital fabrication technologies that allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand are already here, MIT’s Gershenfeld said.
MIT has embarked on a research roadmap that will evolve manufacturing from “machines that make things,” to “machines that make parts of machines,” to self-reproducing machines, digital materials and, finally, to programmable materials that can turn themselves into parts. To achieve this, scientists are developing fabrication processes that can place individual atoms and molecules into any structure so people can build fully functional products in one step, rather than creating and assembling many constituent parts – for example, a full drone that can fly straight out of the printer.
“We are now living through the third digital revolution, in fabrication,” Gershenfeld wrote in his new book Designing Reality, which was published in November 2017. “The first two revolutions rapidly expanded access to communication and computation; this one will allow anyone to make (almost) anything. This time, it’s likely to be even more significant than the first two, because it’s bringing the programmability of the world of bits out into the world of atoms. The defining application emerging for digital fabrication is personal fabrication, which allows consumers to become creators, locally producing, rather than purchasing, mass-manufactured products.”
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