FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Fab Lab

A story that generated lots of buzz on tech and futurist blogs last week was the "Fab Lab," a set of tools developed by MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms that can literally build devices from the ground up. The Fab Lab can mill machine and electronic parts to a millionth of a meter; the stated purpose is to help innovators in developing countries develop and maintain technology. As an article in The Economist explains:

In Pabal, an Indian village with a population of 5,000, a dairy farmer's income is tied to the fat content of his cow's milk. Students at the nearby Vigyan Ashram science school are using a fab lab to build a sensor that will give Pabal's farmers a precise measure of that fat content. In Takoradi, Ghana, people have used the labs to produce a cassava grinder, jewellery, car parts, agricultural tools and communication equipment such as radio antennas. Solar-powered items to harness the relentless local sunlight are in the works. In Norway, Sami animal herders—who are among Europe's last nomads—are using fab labs to make radio collars and wireless networks to track their charges. And in Boston (admittedly not part of the developing world, but conveniently near MIT), the residents of a mixed-income housing complex are using one of Dr Gershenfeld's labs to create a wireless communication network.

The Fab Lab costs $20,000 -- a lot at face value, but not much considering that it does the job of machinery that costs much more. Some analysts have compared the revolutionary impact of the Fab Lab to that of the personal computers, which took computing out of the labs and brought it to the masses... and lowered costs dramatically.

Sources: The Economist, Future Salon