'Fab labs' deliver high-tech tools

MIT's fabrication laboratories aim to help developing communities find innovative solutions to local needs.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

MIT opened the first international Fab Lab in Costa Rica four years ago and has sponsored nine others since then. Meanwhile, many more labs have opened on their own. "They're just sort of popping up," Lassiter says. "It's a good idea, and people want to do it."

That's what is happening in South Africa, where the government has a stated goal of improving the country's science, technology, and manufacturing capabilities.

In June of last year, MIT helped open a Fab Lab near the University of Pretoria, in a new science park called the Innovation Hub. Soon after, the government decided to open three more labs, at about $25,000 each, with the idea of eventually creating a countrywide fabrication laboratory network. In February, the first township Fab Lab opened in Shoshanguve.

"The high concept is to get these into the communities," says Naas Zaayman, who runs the Innovation Hub Fab Lab for Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy, a government program created to spread science and technology. "It's the idea that if you're somewhere in rural South Africa, and you want something for solar energy, you can go to a Fab Lab and make your own."

Meanwhile, he says, the labs can help excite a new generation of South Africans about manufacturing – an underdeveloped economic sector here. He says the labs might also spark new businesses, even industries, by allowing inventors of all backgrounds to use equipment and design prototypes for free.

This is the hope in Soshanguve, a sprawling township of squatter shacks and small brick houses 30 miles north of Pretoria. "Unemployment is high here, so is poverty," says David Rafapha, who works in the new Soshanguve Fab Lab. "We are about educating young people, getting kids to come into the Fab Lab and come up with ideas that can sustain their lives."

Already, Mr. Rafapha said, one person working in the Soshanguve Fab Lab has designed a device that lets a person control the light switches in his or her house with a cellphone – a security tool that could help, and would have a market, in this high-crime area.

Meanwhile, dozens of children are getting their first taste of technology.

The Shoshanguve Fab Lab is located within a single room, next door to a health clinic and across the street from a handful of shipping containers converted into shops. There are seven computers, a few desks, and some rolling chairs. The machinery is crammed into the corners.

The lab is most crowded when school lets out. When it first opened, it had a first-come, first-served policy. But the demand for machines became so huge that the staff put time limits on the computers and reserved weekly time slots for younger children and older adults.

Justinos Nkutshwev is one of the regulars. He sits at a computer, using the mouse to manipulate lines on a graphics program. He is building a bus, he says, and a generator to make it run. He is 15 years old and never used a computer before he came to the Fab Lab a few months ago. Now, he works with the lab's machines twice a week. "I come here because I can make interesting things," he says.

Although the lab technically closes at 5 p.m., the staff regularly keeps it open hours later. Sometimes teenagers show up at staff members' houses on Sunday, begging them to unlock the doors.

"They say 'We need to finish our projects, can you please open?' " Nkadimeng says. "It's great to see them so eager. There's no way to say no."

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