Fab Labs and the Future of Makers All

I’ve been learning about Fab Labs, and it’s blowing my mind.

If you’ve ever heard about Fab Labs, you probably have a vague sense that they’re about making a bunch of cool tools like 3D printing more accessible. It’s possible you also remember that the folks who are involved in Fab Labs think eventually we’ll have Star Trek-like replicators. In other words, neat stuff if you’re a geek, but that’s about it. The real story is a lot more interesting.

Fab Labs came out of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). CBA has a far-out mission: to figure out “how to turn data into things, and things into data.” The National Science Foundation has given CBA millions of dollars to pay for tools and research, and at one point they wanted to be able to briefly show off what this money was producing. So, CBA whipped up a demonstration project they called a Fab Lab: a room full of equipment costing a lot less than millions of dollars that an ordinary mortal could learn how to use and build something interesting. It unexpectedly took off, and now there are around 1,000 Fab Labs across the globe.

According to the Fab Lab FAQ, today a Fab Lab consists of the following equipment:

•A computer-controlled lasercutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts
•A larger (4’x8′) numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house-) sized parts
•A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
•A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surface-mount circuit boards
•Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors

These work with components and materials optimized for use in the field, and are controlled with custom software for integrated design, manufacturing, and project management.

The total cost for all of this equipment: around $50,000 plus materials.

Interestingly, 3D printers, which get a lot of attention in the media, aren’t a big part of Fab Labs. CBA’s director Neil Gershenfeld says 3D printers are the microwave ovens of the fabrication world.

“The coverage of 3D printing is a bit like the coverage of microwave ovens in the 50s. Microwaves are useful for some things, but they didn’t replace the rest of your kitchen,” he said, speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges summit. “The kitchen is more than a microwave oven.

The room full of tools that make up a Fab Lab are pretty cool, but the tools are just the tip of the iceberg. First, according to the Fab Lab FAQ:

Fab labs share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across them.

In other words, Fab Labs aren’t a loose coalition of maker spaces; they are explicitly designed as a network of labs that can build off one another. For example, if a person in one lab comes up with a design, someone in another web should be able to reuse it. Given that the number of Fab Labs has been doubling almost every two years, the potential of this network is impressive.

Second, Fab Labs have a vision of how they will make this technology more accessible. Anyone can go to a Fab Labs and get help in how to to use this new technology. Many Fab Labs also participate in a formal training program called Fab Academy: a five-month course currently offered by 100 Fab Labs around the globe where you can earn a certificate. Unlike MOOCs, Fab Academy combines the best of face-to-face and distributed online learning:

Students with peers are organized in workgroups in Fab Labs, with local instructors and tools, which are then linked globally through interactive video lectures and collaborative project management

The last interesting tidbit from the FAQ is that

[The Fab Lab’s] inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a fab lab being able to make a fab lab.

And that’s what makes the world of Fab Labs so different from 90% of what’s out there. Plenty of people have interesting ideas about what the future will look like. Fab Labs are different: they are part of a well-thought-out strategy for incrementally, iteratively building towards a radically different future.

In this 2017 talk, Gershenfeld compares their work to the history of computers. CBA’s core research facilities are like the old mainframes: a massive amount of machines that cost a ton of money and that were accessible to only a handful of people.

Fab Labs are the equivalent of the 1970’s minicomputers. Minicomputers only took up the space of a few refrigerators, and because they were much cheaper than mainframes, they put a considerable amount of power in the hands of more people.

But a minicomputer is like a horse and buggy compared to today’s smart phones and iPads. And just like computers moved from minicomputers to hobbyist computers to personal computers, he thinks they will be able to do the same with digital fabricators. Currently, their research roadmap says that in 20 years they will have built out the technology for personal-sized digital fabricators.

One of the main destinations on this roadmap is moving beyond 3D printers that spray materials and laser cutters that slice materials to materials that can assemble and dissemble themselves. As a Wired magazine article described it,

For Gershenfeld, the real revolution of fabrication is much more fundamental: it’s bringing programmability to the physical world. He invited the audience to compare the performance of a child assembling Lego and a 3D printer. The child’s assembly of Lego will be more accurate than the child’s motor skills would allow — that’s because the pieces are designed to snap together in alignment. Meanwhile, the 3D printing process accumulates errors, perhaps due to imperfect adhesion in the bottom layers. Lego is also available in different materials, while 3D printers have limited ability to use dissimilar materials. Finally, a Lego construction can be easily disassembled.

Currently, they are exploring this radical new approach in a joint project with NASA on building aircraft.

The NASA/MIT approach is… to fundamentally redesign the structure of the wing so it is capable of bending by itself. The design achieves this by dividing the wing into lightweight, overlapping scale- or feather-like sub-segments. These are supported by tunable and actively deformable modular building blocks, dubbed “digital materials,” that are made of carbon fiber-reinforced polymers that can be quickly engineered and snapped together and allow the wing to deform while maintaining a smooth, aerodynamic surface…. So far, wind tunnel tests have shown the test wing has aerodynamic properties of a conventional wing weighing 10 times more.

In short, Fab Labs aren’t just about putting some maker tools in the hands of folks today. They are part of a larger, bolder vision plus the infrastructure to make it happen. As the Fab Foundation explains,

This community is simultaneously a manufacturing network, a distributed technical education campus, and a distributed research laboratory working to digitize fabrication, inventing the next generation of manufacturing and personal fabrication.

Fab Labs and the broader project they are part of have some striking implications for the Makers All framework.  CBA’s research roadmap estimates that they will have developed the tech for personal replicators in 20 years — in other words, around the time the robots/AI-driven jobs crisis is likely to hit. Even if CBA’s estimate is too optimistic, the tech plus the network of labs, people, and training they will have developed by 2040 will be a game changer, and it’ll greatly expand what Make Creativity Work could do.

There’s a lot more to say here. For example, the educational infrastructure that the Fab Labs Network is building out should allay some concerns about Make Creativity Work’s argument that lots of people from every community could eventually participate in creating robots/AI. But honestly, I’m still wrapping my head around what CBA’s work could mean for Makers All.

But as exciting as this work is, there’s a project to take it to a whole new level. Up Next: Fab Cities

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