'Fab labs' deliver high-tech tools
MIT's fabrication laboratories aim to help developing communities find innovative solutions to local needs.
SHOSHANGUVE, SOUTH AFRICA
Six months ago, when he first walked into this small building tucked off a dirt road in one of Pretoria's impoverished townships, Kenneth Chauke had never used a computer. He didn't know how to maneuver a mouse, or how to type his name.Skip to next paragraph
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But now, the 17-year-old has all the trappings of a techie. He peers at a flat screen monitor, sitting a few feet away from a laser cutter, bins of circuitry equipment by his elbow. He has built his own robot – a cardboard construction that looks part truck, part animal – and is trying to figure out how to develop sensors, gears, and lights.
Soon, Kenneth says, he will go on to new inventions. Maybe a spaceship. Maybe a device that will stop car crashes before they happen. "I want to create new circuit boards, to do things that aren't being done," he says.
Standing nearby, Nthabiseng Nkadimeng smiles. As the IT supervisor at this "Fab Lab," or fabrication laboratory, she has been encouraging Kenneth and other students who flock here after school to think expansively about their new world of technology. That, after all, is the goal of the Fab Lab, an idea born at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now spreading across the developing world. "We want to encourage innovation," Ms. Nkadimeng says. "A lot of the kids, right now, they're making toys. That's OK, it's a start. But eventually we want them to do things that haven't been done before."
Fab Labs are different than the myriad other nonprofit programs working to introduce technology to disadvantaged communities. The MIT professors who came up with the Fab Lab concept believed that rural villagers in India, sheep herders in Norway, and impoverished teens in this Pretoria township of Shoshanguve – anyone anywhere, really – could learn to create technology, as well as use it.
"The capabilities are there," says Sherry Lassiter, program manager for MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, which developed the Fab Labs. "What we're trying to do is to give them access to the knowledge and the tools."
The labs are part of what the Center for Bits and Atoms believes is a trend toward widespread personal fabrication. This is the idea that, not long from now, individuals will be able to manufacture goods at home in the same way they now use personal computing – they will be able to "print" a bicycle, for instance, or open a computer file that contains a piece of machinery.
The Fab Labs are a step in this direction, Ms. Lassiter says. They are filled with modern manufacturing equipment – laser cutters that can make two- and three-dimensional structures; copper cutters that make circuit boards and antennas; plasma cutters to model steel and aluminum. They have open-source computer codes for new inventors to design their projects; and various print and online manuals for newcomers to teach themselves how to create.
The labs also show how personal fabrication can empower communities, Lassiter says. Once people learn the basics of the Fab Labs' computers and manufacturing equipment, they can start developing their own solutions to local problems.
In rural India, for instance, inventors at a Fab Lab are developing a machine to measure the fat content of milk and to sound an alarm when that milk is about to turn sour – important for local dairy farmers. In the mountains of Norway, the local Fab Lab inventors are developing a monitoring device for herders to put on sheep, which would give the animals' location, body temperature, and other statistics. In Ghana, inventors are working on portable, hand-held solar panels to charge appliances such as televisions and refrigerators.