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March 29, 2010

Fab Labs

If you had the right tool kit, what would you make?

If you take even a glance around the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., you can't help but notice--there seems to be a "bit" of everything, everywhere. But once you get past the bicycle tire hanging from the ceiling, the stacked book shelves and desks, a large tank of water, and a variety of electronic circuit boards, you'll find a small tool shop. And this is where our story begins because this is not your ordinary tool shop!

"The tools surrounding us let us make really anything on any scale," explains Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms. The tools of which Gershenfeld speaks include a laser cutter, a wood router and a mini mill for drilling circuit boards. These tools make up a fabrication lab, or "fab lab" for short.

In general, operating a fab lab is a matter of creating a design on computer software, and then having the computer tell the tools in the lab what to do with materials you provide.

For example, in a Ghana village, circuit boards were in short supply, so the kids there used a fab lab to make some. In Norway, herders were tired of losing sheep, so they used fab labs to create tracking devices for the animals. At MIT, students are using fab labs to make parts for a wireless communication network in Afghanistan.

"Fab labs are designed to meet whatever challenge you, as a local community or a person, need to meet," explains Sherry Lassiter, the center's program manager. "In rural Norway, they wanted a fab lab to start small businesses. In rural Africa, they wanted a Fab Lab to empower students with advanced technical education. So, each place has its own needs."

Using a fab lab is not that hard, either. "The age range is from 7-year-olds all the way up to 70-year-olds. As a matter of fact, I am an avid fab labber myself," proclaims Lassiter.

It's no accident that the fab lab was born in the Center for Bits and Atoms. Gershenfeld studies the concept of taking things from the computer world and bringing them into the physical world. The name Center for Bits and Atoms reflects that--Bits stands for the digital bits of information on a computer and Atoms stands for what they actually help create in the physical world.

"This is a laboratory where the digital bits of the world meet the physical atoms of the world, and where we make things. We make things small; we make things large," explains Lassiter. "Take a small slice of what we do here at the Center for Bits and Atoms and put it out into the world and see if people had the ability, had the access to the tools to make almost anything, what would they do."

With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Center for Bits and Atoms created an outreach program. "And so, we sent it out into the world and we were pulled by the lapels by the most amazing places. From rural Africa and rural Norway to inner city Boston and San Diego and Chicago," says Lassiter.

"And we opened just one of them and that was it, and it unleashed this kind of viral explosion we've been trying to keep up with ever since," adds Gershenfeld.

The price tag, including the software and equipment, runs about $50,000, "which makes it unaffordable for an individual, but makes it very accessible for a school or a community," says Lassiter. The first eight labs received some NSF funding, but since then, most labs are paid for through fundraising campaigns or private donations.

"So far, user response has been overwhelmingly positive," says Lassiter. "As long as you walk out of the laboratory having made something of your own design, you're going to come back and you're going to come back and you're going to come back. And that's what's so wonderful about it."

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Jon Baime, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.