Fab labs provide widespread access to modern means for invention. They began as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). CBA assembled millions of dollars in machines for research in digital fabrication, ultimately aiming at developing programmable molecular assemblers that will be able to make almost anything. Fab labs fall between these extremes, comprising roughly fifty thousand dollars in equipment and materials that can be used today to do what will be possible with tomorrow’s personal fabricators.
Fab labs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway. Activities in fab labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research. Projects being developed and produced in fab labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing, and rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines.
Fab labs share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across them. This currently includes:
- 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. This inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a fab lab being able to make a fab lab.
Field fab labs and digital fabrication research are described in this video: http://www.principalvoices.com/2007/technology.innovation/video/neil.gershenfeld/
Along with sharing tools, fab labs share rights and responsibilities expressed in the Fab Charter: http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/charter/
and labs with network connectivity are linked by broadband video: http://fab.cba.mit.edu/content/processes/video
The current hardware specification (~$50k equipment and ~$10k materials): http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/fab/inv.html
and software: http://fab.cba.mit.edu/about/fab/ are freely available. For assistance with ordering, installation, training, and process and project development MIT participates in selected partnerships. However, to scale support for these functions fab labs are increasingly being organized in regional networks, globally coordinated by a Fab Foundation being established in Norway. Along with the Fab Foundation, a Fab Fund is being launched to provide global access to capital and markets for businesses incubated in fab labs, and a Fab Academy is being accredited for distributed degree programs taught in the labs.
Launching a new fab lab requires assembling enough of the hardware and software inventory to be able to share people and projects with other fab labs, posting the Fab Charter to provide context for doing that, and contacting email@example.com to be added to the fab lab network.