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MIT's Futuristic 'Fab Lab' Gets Personal

Ask Sherry Lassiter what the future of manufacturing is and she'll say it's personal — personal fabrication, that is. Lassiter, the program manager at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, is referring to a project she's involved with called the Fabrication Laboratory, or Fab Lab.


The initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, has a twofold objective. First, it is searching for a way to embody or abstract a functional description of a system from its physical form. To that end, it is exploring the boundaries between computer science and physical science.


"We'd like to program the assembly of an object so the object has all of the necessary functionality designed into it," Lassiter says.


Second, it is a way to bring manufacturing to the masses. The initiative is described as a hands-on lab based on off-the-shelf industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, wrapped in open-source software and programs written by researchers at the Center for Bits and Atoms. Currently, Fab Lab projects include a laser cutter that makes 2D and 3D structures, a sign cutter that plots in copper to make antennas and flex circuits, a high-resolution milling machine that makes circuit boards and precision parts, a plasma cutter and welder for large metal objects, and a suite of electronic components and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed microcontrollers. MIT has also written a computer-aided machinery (CAM) program that takes digital descriptions and turns them into tool paths.


"At its heart, it is a rapid-prototyping facility," Lassiter says. And the result is the ability to bring fabrication capabilities to entrepreneurs creating micro-businesses or new capabilities to under-served countries. Fab Labs, which cost about $25,000 to $50,000 in capital equipment and $5,000 to $10,000 in consumables, have opened in India, Norway, Ghana, Costa Rica, and MIT's home base of Boston. Each lab is designed with the same tools and processes so that anything designed in one lab can be shared across the network. To date, projects have ranged from creating wireless mesh networks to help shepherds in the Alps of Norway keep track of their flocks, to users in the Boston lab making jewelry and toys from recycled materials in the community.


But the real appeal for major manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard, which is one of the large corporations interested in the Fab Lab, is the ability to quickly design and prototype a product to figure out whether it is worth pursuing, Lassiter says.


The technology, however, is designed with the future in mind, the point being that functionality should be built into the materials. For example, "We are working on a chip small enough that you could put it in [something] in order to make the material functional ... whether it means heat or a Web browser. There are so many things it can mean that I can't even imagine half of them," Lassiter says.


To that end, the lab is even designed to evolve toward self-sufficiency — meaning that components of the lab can be replaced by components made in the lab until the lab itself is self-reproducing.


It is the next step beyond the digital revolution and, according to Lassiter, "we see this as a future part of manufacturing."


Find more information on the Fab Lab. Or read the book, FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop — from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, by CBA director Neil A. Gershenfeld (2005, Basic Books).

Source:  Editorial from the January 2008 issue of Managing Automation, MIT's Futuristic 'Fab Lab' Gets Personal by Stephanie Neil, MA Editorial Staff

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