Fabricating our future

The sign should read: Caution — revolutionaries at work.

But the people who come to this reclaimed art studio on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champagne aren’t making gasoline bombs or arguing political theory. On a typical Tuesday evening, one might be testing a prototype of a new design for a wind turbine. Another might be custom-printing electronic circuits he designed for a tiny noise suppressor that fits inside a cell phone. Someone else might be beta-testing a lamp that she 3D-printed that uses a new kind of LED technology.

They are developing their products at a “fab lab”, one of the varieties of public “makerspace” that are popping up around the globe. These are community centers stocked with tools where people with a technical bent pay a monthly membership fee — typically less than $100 — to gain hands-on time in well-stocked machine shops equipped with digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters and computer-controlled routers and milling machines. These folks pay to play with the high-tech manufacturing tools that let them build the inventions that, until now, have existed only in their imaginations.

The revolution they’re part of is industrial, not political. It’s been referred to as the Third Industrial Revolution — and the people in the growing global network of fab labs and makerspaces, from Singapore to Champagne to Tasmania, are among its front-line troops.

The first industrial revolution came about when water power and steam engines centralized textile production, exporting it from weavers’ cottages to giant woolen mills. The second industrial revolution was driven by the introduction of Bessemer steel, electricity, and Henry Ford’s perfection of mass production. This new industrial revolution, however, is about dismantling centralization and standardization. It puts state-of-the-art, computer-controlled manufacturing tools in the hands of anyone with an idea and the energy to pursue it — whether the dream is to 3D-print their own custom electric guitar or start the next Fortune 500 company on a shoestring budget.

YMCAs for nerds

Actually, the revolution already is well under way. An enterprising villager in India has used his local makerspace to make a palm-size generator with a jack on one end and a crank on the other. Jack the box into a cell phone, turn the crank, and the phone’s battery charges — no small matter in rural regions without an electric grid where cell phones are the chief means of communication. In far northern Norway, reindeer herders have used their fab lab to make radio-tagged collars to track their animals by computer.

But tinkerers in makerspaces also have given us The Square, the tiny universal credit card reader that jacks into computers and cell phones; a more energy-efficient way to cool computers that could save the world $25 billion a year in electricity; and literally hundreds of new manufacturing enterprises making everything from luxury iPad cases to parts for prosthetic legs.

Makerspaces are unleashing this flurry of creation by democratizing the tools of invention. A small number of those who join a makerspace are tech professionals; but most are people — with or without a technical bent — who simply have an idea. Makerspaces offer classes in how to use everything from design software and table saws to making printed circuits and have staff members ready to walk entrepreneurs through the technicalities of using any given machine. For a fee, staff members will talk you through your idea, turn it into design drawings, and machine a prototype for review. The tools and expertise of advanced manufacturing are now yours for about the price of your monthly electric bill.

Providing access to tools also slashes another barrier to invention: cost. In the past, it could cost thousands to hire the services of a machine shop or engineering firm to create a prototype — one that often didn’t work as planned. A corporate serf with an inspiration could spend months shepherding her idea through a maze of bureaucratic approvals before being granted a bit of company time to conduct a feasibility study. Now those same people can join what Scott Wallace, co-founder of Tacoma’s fab lab, calls “a YMCA for nerds.” Often, individuals with promising ideas can even crowd-fund their tinker-time through Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

It’s not just individuals who want affordable access to these tools. For example, Precision Machine Works, a Tacoma company making parts for the aerospace industry, buys fab lab memberships for many of its employees. The workers experiment in the lab on their own time and bring new skills and ideas back to the company. They also can use the lab to learn technologies and assess their benefits before the company invests in them. Sometimes these employees actually devise new processes that cut costs or create new products. “We make the jobs that make new jobs,” says Stephen Tibbitts, a Tacoma fab lab co-founder.

People come for the camaraderie as much as for the tools. Makerspaces draw a mix of computer geeks, engineers, welders, woodworkers and folks with other specialized skills. People drawn to makerspaces typically like to kibitz on each other’s projects and anyone stuck on a problem can usually collect a range of suggestions for solving it. “When you get that variety of expertise in one place, there aren’t too many problems you can’t solve,” says one Tacoma member.

A clean, well-lighted place

The rising popularity of makerspaces is moving them out of abandoned warehouses and into the commercial mainstream. The most visible example is TechShop, a privately-owned company that has opened makerspaces in eight cities around the US and plans to debut several more in the next few years. A TechShop is hacker heaven for the well-heeled: memberships cost $175 by the month, $125 a month for long-term members, or $1,395 per year.

After passing basic safety and use courses, members gain access to an average of 15,000 square feet of bright, airy space stocked with more than $1 million worth of laser cutters, plastics-working gear, an electronics lab, shops for metal- and woodworking, a textiles area and fully-outfitted machine shop, welding stations, and design software. Members also have the use of generous workspaces, free access to the “bin wall,” where spare parts are stored and can avail themselves of free coffee and popcorn in the lounge, where they can swap ideas and recruit helpers for their projects.

In addition to The Square, some of the better-known ventures that have been hatched in a TechShop include Embrace, an energy-efficient incubator blanket for newborn and premature babies that costs 1% as much as a floor-standing hospital incubator; and DripTech, a cheap, water-efficient drip irrigation system that’s spreading throughout developing countries. Clustered Systems, the company making the new computer cooling technology mentioned earlier, won a $2.8-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and already has licensed its product to a manufacturer, but still uses its local TechShop as an R&D lab.

But TechShop is more than a makerspace. It also hosts corporate team-building events in which groups design and make a product that solves a particular need or problem; and it’s partnered with the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation, which have funded TechShop to offer free technical training to military vets, preparing them for jobs in high-tech manufacturing.

Missionaries of manufacturing

TechShop has a social mission to help veterans; “fab labs”, a special kind of makerspace, are a social mission in themselves. The goal: to give individuals state-of-the-art manufacturing tools,
not only to start new businesses, but also to build what they need to address local issues.

Fab labs grew by accident from a project led by Neil Gershenfeld, the MIT physicist who founded the institute’s Center for Bits and Atoms. The center’s purpose is to blur the distinction between the digital and physical worlds.

In the early 2000s, Gershenfeld was thinking about ways to enable personal manufacturing at home. He persuaded the National Science Foundation to grant him several million dollars to buy a fleet of computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing machines to create a “fabrication laboratory” to pursue his vision.

Under the terms of his grant, Gershenfeld was obligated to do some related “public outreach.” Instead of simply writing or talking about his vision, he persuaded the NSF to let him use a portion of his grant to bring these tools to the public. The first fab labs opened in rural India and northern Norway in 2004.

At first, visitors to the labs came out of curiosity. When they realized they could design and build their own creations, they got busy making things that improved their lives and communities.

In Ghana, villagers used the fab lab’s tools to create a machine that grinds cassava, reducing the amount of human toil needed. They also made their own replacement car parts.

In India, dairy farmers are paid according to the fat content of their cows’ milk. Students used their local fab lab to create a sensor that would let farmers read the specific fat content of milk and project their incomes.

In Jalalabad, fab-lab folk are making cheap antennas from local materials to extend the area’s grass-roots wifi network to villages, schools and hospitals.

To spread the word and promise of fab labs, many — like Champagne-Urbana’s — are located near, or within, schools and other public institutions. Tacoma’s is adjacent to a campus of the University of Washington, which funds student memberships in return for the lab conducting some technology classes. The public library in Fayetteville, New York, hosts a mini-fab lab with 3D printers, laser and vinyl cutters, sewing machines, and hand tools.

MIT has even set up a Fab Academy to train aspiring makers. The annual academy sessions are held at fab labs around the world from January through May and offer 16 one- or two-week courses in subjects from 3D-molding and casting to machine design and business planning.

If you can’t get to a fab lab, MIT’s mobile lab might come to you. The school has outfitted a bus with a small suite of digital tools, including a laser engraver, vinyl cutter, and computer-controlled router. The bus travels the U.S. visiting schools, where students can catch the maker bug as they program machines to make small items such as luggage tags, simple electronic circuits, and 3D models.

Despite their freewheeling projects and free-spirited clientele, fab labs themselves are held to strict standards set by MIT. First, and most important to MIT, is the tenet that separates fab labs from other makerspaces: a fab lab has to offer some degree of cost-free public access. Many fab labs are associated with community colleges or other public institutions that can subsidize this mandate. Second, every lab must have the same core set of tools; an inventor who starts a project in Kabul’s lab should be able to walk into the lab in Tulsa and have the means to finish it. Third, every fab lab has to contribute to its colleagues by taking part in teleconferences, annual meetings, and other collective events. Finally, each fab lab must subscribe to the Fab Charter, which prescribes operational details such as safety measures and principles, such as not allowing the lab to be taken over by commercial ventures trying to avoid the cost of setting up their own factories. Fab labs remain linked to MIT, which uses the labs as test sites for its research and, in turn, offers continuing advice and technical support.

Although MIT seeded the first 10 or 12 fab labs through its NSF grant, funding for new labs comes from the communities that want them. That hasn’t slowed the movement: there are now 256 fab labs in 40 countries and MIT expects that a total of 500 will be in place within 18 months. The location of new sites includes Peru, China, two sites in Armenia, 20 more in India, and 135 in Russia — 35 in Moscow alone.

And why shouldn’t incubators for entrepreneurial makers be popular in the former heart of world communism? One of the few things that Karl Marx got right was the idea that when we become wrench-turners on an assembly line instead of autonomous artisans, we become alienated from our work and labor loses meaning. The makers movement is about redefining craft as a vocation in the digital age.

In other words, to be human is to make stuff. Welcome to the revolution.

Comments are closed.

Skip to content