FAB LAB A Fabricated Revolution?

According to Neil Gershenfeld, ‘Fab Labs’ are to Personal Fabricators what Mainframes are to Personal Computers. If you’ve never heard of Neil Gershenfeld or Fab Labs you are not alone. The Professor and his concept are only famous within a specific circle of interest. That circle widened a little bit to include me a few months ago when Neil Gershenfeld, who is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, came to proselytize a small group of students to his vision of the future. You may however have heard of personal fabricators, even if only in Star Trek. These PFs, as I will refer to them, would be compact machines capable of producing anything, including other machines. Just as Mainframes were “expensive machines with limited markets, used by skilled operators working in specialized rooms to perform repetitive industrial tasks” so are fabricators in their current format (Gershenfeld 3). It follows then that these will evolve into devices with analogous accessibility as personal computers today. Is this probable and even possible? The benefits of pursuing the popularization of PFs are plentiful but I would argue that they are diametrically different to Neil’s master plan.
To understand how Fab Labs came about, it is worthwhile to examine the evangelizing spiel Gershenfeld himself preaches on a frequent basis. A quick search on the Internet for Neil Gershenfeld will return many video records of Neil delivering his vision, ipsis verbis, to many different groups in many different settings, often repeating the same witty drolleries with surprising enthusiasm. The idea for a laboratory where anyone could walk in only with an idea and walk out with a functional solution in their hands has its roots, in this case, in Neil’s early frustration of being too smart for ‘shop class’. Working with your hands has been traditionally relegated to the blue collar. This separation undoubtedly stifles invention and creativity. Neil eventually righted this wrong when he became a professor at MIT with sufficient respect and authority to create a class appropriately called “How To Make (almost) Anything”. The purpose of the class was to introduce students to machines that make things, i.e. laser and plasma cutters, milling machines, and injection molders. The results of the first semester were products intended to meet the wants of their creators, exclusively. This experience lead to thought that ordinary people who did not have access to the multi-million dollar machine shops at MIT, might produce some truly revolutionary creations if they too had access to these machines. And so Fab Lab was born, a small scale workshop with tools usually associated with mass production available to ordinary people for fabrication of proto-personal devices. This description is more of a deduction than an official definition of the project. At a question and answer session with Neil a student asked what type of guidance and instruction are fab lab ‘users’ receive. Neil’s response was an immediate ‘the users themselves’, frustrating anyone trying to get a clear picture of the day-to-day operation of a fab lab. This answer exemplifies the fanatical zeal Gershenfeld has for the success of Fab Lab as a tool for ‘personal discovery’ and his efforts to distance his project from the notion of a machine shop. It is obvious someone is providing guidance. It would be illegal to allow children, for example, to operate dangerous machinery without any kind of instruction. Neil was correct in that Fab Lab is a valuable channel for personal realization. The results of Fab Labs as a creative instrument are indeed remarkable and emblematic of it’s efforts to enable ordinary people to turn their ideas into tangible things.
Fab Labs have been set up in several locations around the world and have produced amazing inventions. There are currently Fab Labs in Norway, Costa Rica, India, Ghana, South Africa, and Boston. Each of these labs operate using slightly different rules and approaches. To better understand Fab Labs, let us look at some of the results from these different locations.
Lyngen Alps, Norway
An interesting project that came out of this Lab where a herder by the name of Haakon Karlsen developed, with the help of a team, a short-range radio coupled with a GPS receiver that could be used by sheep to track their position. The obvious limitation was precisely the ‘short-range’ that defeated the purpose of distance monitoring of the animals. The solution was a network of repeaters fabricated with inexpensive, off-the-shelf radios to relay the signal. The placement of these transceivers helped negotiate the twists and turns of the Lyngen Alps and organically extended a network that serviced multiple users.

India
An important accomplishment was achieved in a Fab Lab in India that reflects the breadth of possibilities Fab Labs offer. A common practice in India among unscrupulous dairy farmers is to dilute milk with water, or worse, bad milk to increase volume. A sensor was developed using a microprocessor that measures a charge rate of milk when a voltage is applied to electrodes placed in a sample of milk. Essentially a device that measures the quality of milk was developed and perfected to help distributors and ultimately consumers.
Boston, USA
The “South End Technology Center” houses the only US based Fab Lab and arguably most clearly exemplifies the social mission that Fab Labs have served. The format at this Fab Lab is that of a class proper where students learn to operate the machines. Students have produced items ranging from a security system that takes a picture of any approaching person to custom game-console controllers. One significant accomplishment has been the transformation of recycled materials into sellable goods that empower inner-city students with an earning potential.
Ghana
In Ghana, a Fab Lab was able to inexpensively and effectively convert sunlight into usable energy. A contraption was fabricated that creates steam by boiling water using a parabolic reflector. This steam then was used to turn a turbine. One of the things that make this project unique is the turbine. Because the RPM attainable with the steam generated is fairly low, a Tesla turbine was used to maximize efficiency. Tesla turbines are an old design, rarely used today, where closely and precisely spaced discs very economically ‘capture’ the energy generated by the steam.
South Africa
In Soshanguve, South Africa users have assembled batteries from scrap zinc, carbon manganese dioxide and various plastics. In another application a user made a self-directing vacuum cleaner. With heavy governmental funding, the Fab Labs in South Africa have fulfilled an important role in spreading technology to a whole generation by creating centers that put up the Labs.

These centers, and any new Fab Lab, will necessarily obey certain ‘inventory’ principles and standards. All Fab Labs contain basic equipment that perform three basic tasks: subtraction, addition, and formation. Interestingly, the Internet is speckled with web sites and user groups supporting and promoting the creation of fabbers. According to Fabbers.com, “a fabber (short for ‘digital fabricator’) is a ‘factory in a box’ that makes things automatically from digital data”. Furthermore, “fabbers generate three-dimensional, solid objects you can hold in your hands, submit to testing, or assemble into working mechanisms.” The emergence of these fabbers is a testament to Gershenfelds prediction that these machines will shrink and become more accessible. The tools used to perform the three basic tasks that Fabbers and Fab Labs perform will evolve and perhaps fuse into hybrid variations but the functions will remain. Today, subtraction is performed by computer controlled cutting tools like laser, plasma, and water jet cutters as well as milling machines. The basic idea of subtractive processes is to remove everything that is not the desired ‘thing’ from a block of material. Additive processes today use tools such as vacuum formers and injection molders. There are currently commercially available machines that used additive and subtractive technologies and are marketed as ‘fabbers’ intended to meet the rapid prototyping needs. One example is a machine sold by a company called Soligen that essentially prints a three-dimensional object using a technique called ‘drop on powder deposition’. Like this machine, there are dozens that were designed specifically as fabbers and not to service any large-scale production need. The third process is the formative process. Just like swordsmith will fold and hammer away at a piece of hot steel to achieve a desired shape, formative tools neither add nor subtract material. Tools of this type would be presses of various types.
All the evidence so far seems to indicate that PFs are on their way to becoming a reality. There is a demand for personal fabrication and the cost of producing machines that fabricate is dropping. Both these forces, the supply and demand, however, have barriers that may steer the future of PFs in a direction and at a rate that perhaps are not expected. Professor Gershenfeld makes a specific reference to the killer apps as the success cornerstones of the personal computer and that a similar catalyst will define the survival and success of PFs. PCs had killer apps with names like Visicalc and WordStar, jobs that they performed that most everybody already did, and more importantly, a viable economic distribution channel and reward that made them commercial successes. This is perhaps where Gershenfeld’s analogy is not perfect. According to Gershenfeld, the killer app of PFs is fulfilling individual desires. There isn’t and will unlikely ever exist, a machine that can fulfill any individual desire. We don’t think much about this, but PCs evolved into something we sit in front of. People used to stand in front of mainframes. The current PC, with a mouse, graphical user interface and LCD inherited its format from an evolutionary process that included killer apps as defining influences. Much the same way, PFs will become machines that we have no business even imagining. Any prediction will most probably be laughable in a few years.

In a few years the Fabbers and Fab Labs will most certainly look a little different. They will still be recognizable in the sense that the there will be automated process fabricating things. Returning to the mainframe analogy, one aspect that contributes favorably to the analogy is the ability to distribute master plans between users. Someone can easily ‘package’ his idea into a digital document that can be shared with other users that have access to PFs. The ability to distribute these documents is what will carve the evolutionary path of PFs. Fabricators will need to operate on a common denominator that will limit their ability to fulfill any desire. They will indeed take much the same path as the PC did in that some type of ‘open source’ projects will surface, consolidating solutions for groups of people. Even the strict separation of hardware and software may not have been foreseen in the early days of mainframes. In the same way, PFs may suffer further sub classifications that we cannot conceive of today. It is helpful to remember also that mainframes still exist and are profitable in a flourish market even today.
Another element that disrupts the mainframe analogy is materials. The materials that are used by Fab Labs and Fabbers are as diverse as the machines themselves. In order to popularize PFs, new elements will need to be created, materials that are easier to manipulate and distribute. Materials may be considered the software of PFs and the emergence of new materials will dictate the direction PFs will take. The discovery of these materials will also define the time it will take to progress from what Fab Labs look like today to what PFs will look like whenever they come to fruition. Comparatively, PCs evolved very quickly. After all, the steps between thinking and doing are quicker and fewer when it comes to programming than it would ever be with personal fabrication. Methodologies and conventions helped PCs, software, and consequently killer apps take shape in an organized and modular way. Object oriented programming for example made it very easy applications to take a distributed development. It is difficult to imagine what the PF equivalent would be since materials and concepts can be so diverse.
Besides materials and other limitations, PFs will face challenges PCs never had. One of these challenges is more of a regulatory nature. In his book FAB, Gershenfeld describes a personal transportation project created by an MIT student. Using laser cutters and polycarbonate plastic, Saul Griffith created a bicycle that assembles with the addition of a few off the shelf parts, like wheels and tires. Conceivably, a PF will be able to fabricate the entire bicycle. Saul can email his bicycle to any friend and they can make a bicycle too. The potential problems with this and any similar project on a larger scale are that of quality and safety. The equivalent problem with the PC counter part is that of application bugs. They are common and many times get fixed but they are not life threatening. A miscalculated bolt can send a user veering off at high speeds on a poorly designed or constructed personal transportation device that came out of an out of tune PF.
Fab Labs are however, and important predecessor to PFs but perhaps more importantly, they currently serve as an equalizing element in the distribution of knowledge. The knowledge is not only concerned with the technologies available at the facilitaties. Learning how to operate machinery is the least of the tasks Fab Labs around the world accomplish. Fab Labs inspire new ideas and solutions. Most areas where Fab Labs were established were in dire need of resources of an intellectual nature, that is, the ability to create solutions and develop more opportunities. Because these labs for the most part rely on state funding or significant private investments, they are usually partnered into larger facilities that provide further community services. In many cases, the real objective is to help people help themselves from an early age. So many of the stories described in the book Fab and in articles that circulate on the Internet are about pre-teens who have tackled and mastered problems that would present a serious challenge to even a highly educated professional or academic. In most cases, it seems these children have understood just enough about each of the necessary element that will make a machine work. But Fab Labs is not about children; it is about making things, things that people (individuals) want. It is also about laying the tracks for the development of the technologies that will make PFs a reality.

In many respects, much of what Fab Lab represents is an effort to bridge a gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. This divide leads us to the final aspect of the analogy, one not explicitly made by Gershenfeld but relevant nevertheless. Much talk was made in the 1990’s about the digital divide and the implications of such an even distribution of resources. The coming digital divide is one of a material nature, where some will have access to personal fabrication while others will not. Fab Labs is preemptively addressing this gap by targeting areas where the need is greater. This almost seems unfair as access to the tools and resources available at Fab Labs is beyond the reach of most people living in first world countries, case and point is the overwhelming response Gershenfeld’s “How To Make (almost) Anything” had. This response is/was symptomatic of the sterile upbringing that ‘haves’ receive vis-à-vis the do-it-yourself culture that surrounds them.
However imperfect the analogy between the advancement of personal computation and the advancement of personal fabrication is, the underlying impact that Fab Labs is having on the future of PFs is undeniable. In summary, Fab Labs are an important predecessor to PFs. PFs may turn out to be almost unrecognizable to a time traveler leaving the present day to visit the far future. The basic principles of subtraction and addition will nevertheless define them and owe their nature to today’s pioneers at the many Fab Labs around the world. Gershenfeld conspicuously left out dates from his book on Fab Labs. Newer editions will certainly be out, transforming it into more of a blog than an ‘old testament’ of personal fabrication. Finally,it is important to recognize Fab Labs as a social equalizer in education and opportunity. The innovations, discoveries, inventions, gadgets, and personal fulfillment that they enable are the legacy that will endure.

References
Gershenfeld, N. (2005). Fab: the coming revolution on your desktop – from personal computers to personal fabrication. New York: Basic Books
Mikhak, B., Lyon, C., Gorton, T., Gershenfeld, N., McEnnis, C., Taylor, J.. Fab Lab: An Alternate Model Of Ict For Development. Retrieved December 29, 2006, from, http://cba.mit.edu/projects/fablab/fablab-dyd02.pdf
What is a Fabber? An Introduction to the 21st Century. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.ennex.com/~fabbers/intro.asp
Hanes, S.. (2006, September 27). ‘Fab labs’ deliver high-tech tools. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0927/p16s01-stct.html
Associated Press. (2005, November 6). Imagine, Make It Real in Fab Lab. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,69495,00.html
Bellis, M.. WordStar – The First Word Processor. January 5, 2007, from, http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventions/a/WordStar.htm

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