Friday, February 8, 2013

A Visit to the Fab Lab

I've mentioned my middle kid a few times.  This is the chap with mechanical abilities that lie somewhere in the interface between art, science and alchemy.  Naturally, and after only a few stubborn detours, he is in college studying manufacturing engineering.

He has this great on-campus job.  His school was setting up a "Fab Lab" and needed someone to install the machinery then stay on and work.  I had only a sketchy idea of what this place seemed to be some kind of prototyping shop.

Recently they had a Grand Opening.  Spouse and I sort of invited ourselves to the special Open House for Faculty and Titans of Industry.  What the heck, you can almost always bluff your way through these things and anyway a couple of the staff there know I teach robotics.

It was a fascinating presentation and I learned much.

Fab Labs started as an outreach program from the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.  They have ambitious goals.  Basically they want for it to be possible for "anyone to make anything anywhere".  They specifically indicate that they are aiming for the Star Trek replicator.

There are about 150 of these labs operating at present, with projected doubling every 18 months. They have all sorts of cool toys, 3D printers, computer controlled milling machines, printed circuit fabricators, laser engravers, plasma cutters.  Basically just about anything you can imagine that will turn computer instructions into finished, customized parts.

But the real point of this "movement" is not what you can do today, but what you will be able to do tomorrow.  Also, where you will be doing it.

The top end toys like the 3D printers are dropping radically in price.  What cost $100,000 dollars a couple of years ago now sells for $20,000.  And it works better and faster.  And in a couple of more years it will be still better, cheaper and faster.  This is in line with what personal computing has done since its inception.

Probably there will always be a need for big sooty factories, mostly in China, that make millions of identical nuts and bolts.  But the Fab Lab exists so that people with moderate technical abilities can make a small number of things that they need right then and there.  A chair. A circuit board.  A work of art.  A prototype you can then present to the mass manufacturer.

This in part explains the highly unlikely distribution of Fab Labs around the world.  Iceland with a population of about 350,000 has four, soon to be six of them.  Why? Well, if you are in the middle of the frigid North Atlantic you really would rather not send away to Norway or China for that one odd widget you need.  The shipping costs would clobber you for one thing.

There are quite a few Fab Labs in Spain, where youth unemployment is a tragic 50%. There is a video link hook up of the entire Fab Lab network and we heard from a Spanish city, Barcelona I think, that is setting up a network of these places.  The goal is that all local needs will be made.....locally.

I was shocked to learn that there is a Fab Lab in Afghanistan.  I really hope the Taliban do not hear about it.

The father of the Fab Lab movement is a shaggy MIT Prof named Neil Gershenfeld.  He gave us quite a talk over the video link.  He sees a future where this becomes the new paradigm for manufacturing.  He sees the current machines as being pretty much like the primitive lathes and mills of the early Industrial Revolution.  In a few years-and the rate of change is hard to predict-he sees ever more complex things being made.  Machines that make new machines that make other new machines.  Machines that manufacture using materials that already contain data processing capabilities.  Perhaps the Star Trek replicators-like the Star Trek communicators-were an underestimate of what we can do.

It sounds great.  I am very happy that my son is in on what amounts to the ground floor. He rather realistically describes himself as "the least unqualified person working there".

And it will all turn out according to plan.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong with intelligent machines linked together in a world wide network...creating more machines that are ever smarter and smarter?

This public service message/vision of the future brought to you by:

And the Borg Collective

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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