All Hail the Fab Lab

by Melba Kurman

All Hail the Fab LabFab Labs are a concept invented by Neal Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, a group of students and faculty who create cutting edge ways to create physical objects from software blueprints. FabLabs are an example of what’s called “personal fabrication.”

First, an explanation of personal fabrication. Like the evolution from mainframe to desktop computing, the world of manufacturing is poised at the brink of a similar shift thanks to small-scale manufacturing machines that are increasingly cheap, small and easy to use. Called “personal fabrication technology,” these machines use software blueprints manufacture all kinds of things from software blueprints, including food, lamps, clothing and toys. For those familiar with the world of large-scale industrial manufacturing, personal fabrication technologies are the pint-sized low-cost cousins of the machines used for mass production in factories. Called “fabbers,” these emerging technologies do the same thing as machines used in factories do: some “print” layers of material to eventually form a 3D object from a software blueprint. Others use laser sintering to cut out designs. Some sew garments. The newer machines are the size of a microwave oven, cost less than $1000, and the number of available software blueprints that peopole can download to manufacture stuff continues to increase.

MIT is a leader in the area of personal fabrication; to bring the power of small scale manufacturing to developing areas, Gershenfeld and colleagues have set up a number of “Fab Labs” around the world. The Fab Labs are kind of like the computer labs of the old days. The fabrication machines are housed in the Fab Lab, and somebody works there and keeps an eye on things and helps people use the machines. Local people come in and experiment with the machines and learn to manufacture objects that are customized especially for them and manufactured right there so they don’t have to worry about distribution costs and delays. Here’s more.

Cornell is developing 3D printers that use materials instead of ink and manufacture 3D objects. Called Fab@home, the Cornell team has set up an online user community of hobbyists, researchers and small businesses who use the technology and are working to further develop it.

A growing number of small businesses are actually starting to make money by selling personal fabrication services, meaning they can design a custom software blueprint for a customer, then fabricate it on the spot. This is great for industrial prototyping, but also very useful for consumer items such as gifts for special occasions or very hard-to-please people.

I’ll post more later this week.

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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.

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