Fab Labs unshackle imaginations – USA Today
By Mark Jewell, Associated Press
BOSTON — When Makeda Stephenson compared flight simulator games sold in computer stores and didn’t find anything she liked, she didn’t stop there.
The 13-year-old used a set of computer-controlled manufacturing tools at a community center to make her own simulator — one that lets her “fly” an airplane of her design over an alien planet born of her imagination.
In a room filled with computers and tabletop-sized manufacturing equipment, Stephenson created a pilot’s control yoke with motion sensors she fashioned from a melange of old electronic toys and parts.
A computer program Stephenson wrote with help from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology students guides the plane’s movements on her computer screen.
She did it all through a teen learning program at one of seven so-called Fabrication Labs that MIT has established in places as distant as Norway and Ghana. Each lab has tool sets that, costing about $25,000, would be out of the reach of most fledgling inventors.
Advocates of such “Fab Labs” think they have the potential to vastly expand the creative powers of tinkerers and usher in a revolution in do-it-yourself design and manufacturing that can empower even the smallest of communities.
“If you give people access and means to solve their own problems, it touches something very, very deep,” said Neil Gershenfeld, an MIT physicist and computer scientist whose is among the movement’s chief proponents. “Somehow it goes back to nest-building, or mastering your own environment.
“There’s sort of this deep thing inside that most people don’t express that comes tumbling out when they get access to these tools,” he said.
Fab Lab output can be practical, or whimsical.
Herders in northern Norway erected a telecommunications network to track their sheep’s wanderings with radio antennas and electronic tags.
In India, farmers created measurement tools to ensure a safe milk supply and measure fat content, and women found a way to scan and print carved wooden blocks used for a local kind of embroidery. In a separate project, villagers designed small LED lights for use in areas lacking electricity.
Villagers in Ghana, meanwhile, harnessed solar power to make electricity and cook food rather than relying on firewood.
On the fanciful front, a teenage girl in Boston created a diary security system that photographs anyone coming near the owner’s private writings — say, a nosey brother. And an MIT student created something called “ScreamBody” — a backpack-sized wearable air chamber into which someone can voice a muffled scream in a public place. The scream is recorded for subsequent “release” in private.
MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms began setting up Fab Labs three years ago as free community resources, using part of a $12.5 million National Science Foundation grant and local financing.
Each lab is equipped with commercially available tools, including a laser cutter and milling machine to carve out two- and three-dimensional parts; a sign cutter for creating graphics or plotting flexible electronic circuits; and electronic assembly tools.
Open-source software and MIT-written programs control the devices, machining parts to tolerances that once could be achieved only using equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Citizen inventors with only modest technical expertise swap ideas with counterparts at other Fab Labs around the world by electronically sharing design blueprints or going to a Fab Lab website that offers project ideas.
“In a sense, this is like open-source software, but for hardware,” Gershenfeld said.
Industrial designers say such ventures hold great promise.
“I’m not worried about being out of a job, but I think there would be new uses for this technology that people can’t even imagine,” said Gianfranco Zaccai, president and chief executive of Design Continuum, a Boston-based design and development firm. “It might be a harbinger for the return of the village craftsman in a world of high technology.”
Leslie Speer, an industrial design professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, expects Fab Labs will do much to encourage local solutions to developing world problems.
But she wonders whether the planet can handle the spread of customized manufacturing to potentially billions of people, many whom lack material wealth.
“Where are the raw materials going to come from?” Speer said. “Can we as humans on a planet with finite resources afford this decentralized, individualized production model?”
Gershenfeld is emphasizing the project’s practical potential in his search for long-term funding. The five-year NSF grant is entering its final year, and funding from other potential sources as the World Bank has so far eluded him.
However, Norway’s federal government established a foundation to support Fab Labs globally, and a New York-based start-up is offering venture capital for lab users.
In the meantime, the invention flourishes.
Teenagers at the Boston Fab Lab used its tools to fashion scrap material into jewelry for sale.
And in an MIT class called “How to make (almost) anything,” a student used a campus Fab Lab to create the “Interpet Explorer,” a computer interface for parrots featuring a specialized mouse that can be manipulated by the bird’s beak.
Then there’s the “Defensible Dress,” equipped with wires programmed to spike outward that can be activated when the wearer’s personal space is invaded.
It doesn’t matter to Gershenfeld, in the end, whether a Fab Lab product has any commercial value.
“A Web browser for parrots isn’t meant to serve a scalable business market,” Gershenfeld said.
That’s exactly what drove Stephenson, the young flight simulator designer:
“It’s different if you make it yourself,” she said. “It’s more personal.”