Gone are the days when only large companies had the skills, resources, financial backing and manufacturing capabilities to turn their product ideas into reality. Today, digital fabrication technologies and a global network of “fab labs” are enabling innovative people to create prototypes of almost anything. How is this revolution happening? It is happening through the magic of fabrication laboratories, where entrepreneurs and inventors with good ideas gain free or low-cost access to facilities packed with digital fabrication tools, software and networks of advisers skilled in everything from 3D design to manufacturing and marketing, all eager to help bring the ideas to fruition.
Where ideas become reality
Fab labs, as they’re commonly known, first emerged in 2001 as an educational outreach component of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). The center, led by director, Neil Gershenfeld, focuses on finding practical applications for its research into digital fabrication and computation.
Inspired by Gershenfeld’s concept, a global network of about 1,200 independent fab labs has popped up in 100 countries, providing access to the digital fabrication tools and expertise people need to rapidly make a prototype of almost anything and then pitch it to investors. Fab Foundation, which coordinates the global fab lab network, are giving people the technology, showing them how to use it and challenging them to use their newfound skills to make something innovative that benefits their local communities. They have a global community of educators, researchers and makers, and a worldwide program for empowering local invention and entrepreneurship, which doubles in size every 18 months.
Making the makers
Finding innovators to use the fab labs is easy, thanks to the parallel rise of the Maker Movement. The movement was pioneered by Dale Dougherty, who in 2005, founded Maker Media and began publication of MAKE magazine. The magazine provided the catalyst for a technology-influenced, do-it-yourself community, which has grown beyond its hobbyist roots into a market ecosystem powered by the internet and more affordable and user-friendly fabrication technologies. Today, thousands of makerspaces, online maker communities and annual local and international Maker Faires exist worldwide. In September 2017, for example, more than 90,000 people attended the World Maker Faire New York and 45% were first-time visitors. Today, several fab labs have even organised their own Maker Faires.
Centers for collaboration
At many fab labs, innovators work alongside peers and experts, allowing them opportunities to brainstorm and access to technical support and business advice as they test and refine their prototypes.
When Laurent Bernadac, an Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Toulouse-trained engineer and award-winning virtuoso musician, wanted to 3D-print a lightweight, ergonomic electric violin, for example, Bernadac found a fab lab that helped him locate the industrial stereolithography 3D-printing partner he needed for his project and created his investment campaign for the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. Daniel Heltzel, Managing Director of Germany’s FabLab Berlin, agrees that fab labs is an efficient place for matching innovators with experts.
A wider impact
By making it quick, easy and affordable to design and create prototypes, fab labs is giving rise to a range of modern cottage industries, particularly beneficial in less economically developed countries. In East Africa, for example, Fab Lab Rwanda is using digital fabrication to boost the country’s competitiveness in design, engineering, electronics, fabrication and high-tech. So far, the lab has helped about 30 entrepreneurs with projects that include building prototype solar vehicles, a drone and a facial-recognition robot.
Fab labs are popping up at schools and universities as platforms for project-based, hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. FabLab Singapore Polytechnic, for example, helps students from Singapore Polytechnic explore potential applications for digital fabrication and learn technical skills that can be transferred to the workplace.
New age of personal digital fabrication
Personal digital fabrication technologies allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand that already exists today. MIT has embarked on a research roadmap that will evolve manufacturing from “machines that make things” to “machines that make parts of machines” to self-reproducing machines, digital materials and finally, to programmable materials that can turn themselves into parts. To achieve this, scientists are developing fabrication processes that can place individual atoms and molecules into any structure so that people can build fully functional products in one step, rather than creating and assembling many constituent parts—for example, a full drone that can fly straight out of the printer.
“We are now living through the third digital revolution, in fabrication,” Gershenfeld shares and adds, “The first two revolutions rapidly expanded access to communication and computation; this one will allow anyone to make (almost) anything. This time, it’s likely to be even more significant than the first two, because it’s bringing the programmability of the world of bits out into the world of atoms. The defining application emerging for digital fabrication is personal fabrication, which allows consumers to become creators, locally producing, rather than purchasing, mass-manufactured products.”
This article was first published on https://compassmag.3ds.com/#/Business/FAB-LABS