'Fab labs' deliver high-tech tools
MIT's fabrication laboratories aim to help developing communities find innovative solutions to local needs.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."