How a favourite sci-fi fantasy is becoming a reality

Fab Labs will benefit everyone from guitar enthusiasts to Third World farmers. Jimmy Lee Shreeve reports
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The Independent Online

One of the most intriguing devices featured in Star Trek was the replicator. It could copy the molecules of any given object and store them in a massive database. Whenever Captain Kirk or his crew needed anything - such as an authentic Old West revolver (if they happened to be travelling back in time) - the replicator would produce a shiny new copy of the desired item. While such a sophisticated device is probably not likely to appear for a couple of hundred years or more, the fact is, everything has to start somewhere. And the very beginnings of replicators are being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA).

Called "fab labs" (short for fabrication laboratories), the devices cannot yet assemble things from their component atoms, but can be used to make just about anything with features bigger than those of a computer chip.

"The fab lab is a really early prototype of a personal replicator," says Sherry Lassiter, CBA's programme manager. "The fab lab can't push molecules around, but it can do maybe 10 per cent of what a personal replicator might do."

In essence, the fab lab - more formally known as a "personal fabrication system" - is a small package of tools and software that functions as a complete design and manufacturing workshop. All the components are easy to use and allow almost anyone, including people in remote African villages who may never have seen a computer or sophisticated machine tools before, to manufacture a surprisingly wide range of items. A typical fab-lab system includes a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter (normally used for making signs but used in fab labs to cut copper for electrical circuits), and a milling machine to make circuit boards. All are connected to Linux-based computers loaded with open-source design and manufacturing software.

A fab-lab system currently costs around $20,000 (£11,570). But its inventor, the top MIT physicist and CBA director Dr Neil Gershenfeld, predicts that fab-lab prices will follow the path of PCs. With volume production, these advanced DIY systems could drop by half to $10,000 and then possibly to $1,000, making them accessible to nearly anyone. "In the end, fabrication [systems] will be just like PCs - just technology that people have," he says.

For Gershenfeld, the primary benefit of fab-lab systems is they have the potential to be empowering, especially in rural, developing communities. He says: "By personal fabrication, what I mean is ordinary people creating, rather than consuming, technology, creating technology to solve local problems."

This vision is no pipe-dream. It has already turned into reality across the globe. Students at Vigyan Ashram science school near the village of Pabal in India, for example, used Gershenfeld's technology to help local dairy farmers. The farmers' income is tied to the level of fat in their cows' milk, so the students used a fab-lab system to develop a sensor to give a precise measure of the fat content. They are also creating equipment that tunes diesel engines to run more efficiently, particularly with local bio-fuels. In Takoradi, Ghana, fab labs have been used to produce a cassava grinder, jewellery, car parts, agricultural tools, and communication equipment such as radio antennae. In the works are solar-energy collectors to turn the country's near-constant sunlight into power for cooking, cutting and refrigeration. To the north, in the cooler climes of Norway, Sami animal herders are using fab labs to make radio collars and wireless networks to track their animals.

In the urban environment, 13-year-old Makeda Stephenson from Boston, Massachusetts, dissatisfied with the flight-simulator games sold in computer shops, used a local fab-labs project to build her own - one that would let her "fly" an aeroplane of her design over an alien planet born entirely of her own imagination. "It's different if you make it yourself," she says. "It's more personal."

For the next generation of fab labs, Gershenfeld hopes to include a rapid-prototyping machine, a device that is already becoming common in industry. In some ways, such devices are similar to ink-jet printers. The difference is that they create three-dimensional "images" from computer models, laying down layer upon layer of plastic, powdered metal, or other material, until the image becomes reality. Overnight, for example, they can create the shell of a cellular phone. In the long run, by combining plastics and metal circuitry, rapid prototyping machines are expected to deliver a working cellphone - or pretty much any other similar gadget.

The concept isn't limited to small consumer products, though. In his book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on your Desktop - From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication (Basic Books 1995), Gershenfeld reports on initiatives to develop large, mobile printers that squirt concrete for "printing" a building or bridge. Larry Sass, an MIT professor of architecture, is already developing a fab-lab system for constructing simple, customised houses from plywood panels, costing roughly $2,000 (£1,160).

Soon, Gershenfeld plans to offer fab labs that can reproduce themselves over and over again, creating waves of successively cheaper systems, eventually making them affordable for all. A fab lab in every home could have a dramatic impact on today's throwaway culture. When a home-made appliance or toy breaks, for example, a fab lab would be able to disassemble it and either rebuild it or recycle the materials. Gershenfeld is not naive enough to image fab labs will replace mass production - not in the short term, anyway. But he does believe that, within the next few years, they will allow growing numbers of individuals and businesses to customise products to fit their needs.

Some people, however, are sceptical about the sustainability of fab labs. The devices are relatively inexpensive to create, and so far MIT pays the start-up costs. But after a year or so, the labs are on their own. The ultimate goal is for the labs to be financially self-sustaining.

To that end, Gershenfeld has met people from the World Bank, the US National Academies, and the World Economic Forum, about funding. Although they like the idea of the fab lab, they all say it doesn't quite fit into their agendas. "It's an animal the likes of which hardly anyone has seen," says Michael Jensen, the director of web communications at the National Academies. As far as he and the other organisations are concerned the project is far too speculative.

Gershenfeld, though, has thought up a solution: to create a different kind of funding organisation, "somewhere between philanthropic aid, basic research, and business development". But fab labs, Gershenfeld stresses, are research experiments and are still very much works in progress.

Whether fab labs will take off in a big way only time will tell. But a New Jersey start up, eMachineShop.com, has seized the commercial initiative and is using the fab-labs model to make it possible for anyone, anywhere in the world, to design their own item and get it built and delivered directly to their door. The process is simple and straightforward: you download the free Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, then create a 3D model of the item you require. If you've never used CAD before, the help wizards are extensive enough to get even the most technophobic designing objects within 20 minutes or so. Once satisfied with your creation, you click to get a price for manufacture and delivery. If you're happy with it, you place your order online.

The US journalist Clive Thompson, a guitar player since his teens, decided to use eMachineShop.com to create a unique guitar body. Although he had no experience in design, he soon managed to come up with what he describes as "a curvy, amoeba-like adaptation of a [Gibson] Flying V guitar", made out of acrylic (because eMachineShop.com didn't stock wood thick enough). After accepting the $880 quote and hitting the "Place Order" button, Thompson eagerly awaited delivery. But when the finished product arrived he had mixed feelings - his design abilities had fallen short. "I'd made the guitar body far thicker than I should have, [which made it] much heavier than a conventional guitar," he says. Thompson also noticed he'd made other design errors. "I'd forgotten to round the corners on all sides of the guitar, so the back part looks like a table-top." But once he'd attached the pick-ups, neck and strings - and all importantly, plugged it into an amplifier - Thompson thundered out a powerchord, and his feelings changed.

"For all its imperfections, my creation looks... less a straight-ahead guitar than a piece of mildly psychedelic Soviet machinery. Maybe this is the appeal of the fab-lab revolution: When you create something from scratch, even the flaws are charming."

As Gershenfeld says, "Fab is about making the things you can't find at Wal-Mart. It's stuff for a market of one."

MIT's Centre for Bits and Atoms fab labs project: fab.cba.mit.edu; eMachineShop: www.emachineshop.com

The birth of Fab

* The idea for fab labs was sparked by a course called How to Make (Almost) Anything at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), which the fab labs inventor, Dr Neil Gershenfeld, heads.

* Gershenfeld saw the class as a how-to exercise for engineering students. They would get to experiment with CBA's multimillion-dollar range of machinery and tools - the grandfather of fab labs.

* The first class met in 1998, and Gershenfeld was astonished to find that it consisted of as many aspiring artists and architects as it did of engineers.

* Another surprise came when he discovered why most students wanted to take the course: "They were motivated by the desire to make things they'd always wanted but that didn't exist."

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