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Agents of Change
Fabrication labs help communities help themselves
By Katharine Dunn
MIT graduate student Amy Sun held up a computer-manufactured fluorescent pink vinyl key chain engraved with her name. If you want it, she told the class, you will have to make it. Some of the children, students, and teachers crowded into the classroom in southwest Ghana had never touched a computer before, but they coveted that key chain. Over the next few weeks, class members, sometimes 20 at a time, hovered over the three computers in MITs newest fab lab, playing with software and sending their designscrosses, maps of Africa, hearts, airplanesto a laser cutter that etched them into acrylic, foam, and cardboard. When the cardboard got soggy in the citys high humidity, the classmates substituted local materials like coconut tree bark. After theyd learned the basics of the technology and produced pocketfuls of trinkets, Sun and the classes talked about what should happen next. According to Sun, The students said, Key chains are cool, but key chains dont change Ghana.
Maybe not, but theyre a start. The Ghanaian fab lab, set up by the Center for Bits
and Atoms last summer, is the sixth deployed by MIT since 2002 and contains $20,000 in equipment. Fab labs represent what center director Neil Gershenfeld calls a sea change: unlike computers that are simply exported to communities, they give people the ability to design and create technologies their communities can use. The labs evolved from Gershenfelds research on personal fabrication, which enlists computers to create useful objects on the spot. In Ghana, for example, where cell phones are more prevalent than landline phones, students are using the computers to build copper antennas that extend cellular coverage. They next want to build solar-powered machines, such as steam engines.
The fab labs grew out of Gershenfelds class How to Make (Almost) Anything, which he started teaching in 1998. In the class, students expressed themselves technologically, says Gershenfeld, using MIT equipment to invent such things as a Spanish-English talking doll and a magnetic card reader that plays music when a card is swiped. Based on projects from the class, Gershenfeld selected the equipment that now makes up each fab lab: several Linux-based computers loaded with open-source design software; a scanner and printer; physical tools such as scissors and cardboard; and three fabrication machinesa laser cutter, an electric sign-makers knife, and a three-dimensional-milling machine for building circuit boards.
The labs are meant to bring personal-fabrication capability to any community. Today there are five international fab labs, plus one in Boston. Labs are either based at technology institutes or educational centers or backed by high-tech companies. A National Science Foundation grant pays for the capital equipment, supports the labs for about a year, and then turns them over to local communities. There is no formal application process to get a fab lab. News of them has spread by word of mouth, and interested communities have come forward and asked to participate. The lab in Ghana is a perfect example. Immigrants from the southwestern city of Sekondi-Takoradi happened upon the Boston lab. They knew their forward-thinking hometown mayor would be interested in establishing a lab locally, so they approached Gershenfeld with a plan to make it happen.
Each community determines how its lab will be used. The first fab lab, in Costa Rica, uses the equipment to teach technology skills to high-school students. Two labs in India help the local economies. Users in one community are building a spectral analyzer to precisely measure the amount of fat in milk, which will help thwart dishonest merchants who water down their wares. Another lab in India helps local artisans digitally design and build molds for stamping designs on fabrics. In Norway, farmers and engineers are collaborating to build a wireless radio to track sheep and reindeer from birth until theyre slaughtered. And in Boston, the lab at the South End Technology Center is working to provide wireless Internet access to local shops and homes.
The labs are now beginning to share their successes with each other. Recently, the lab in Norway designed an antenna for wireless networking and posted building instructions on the Web. Sherry Lassiter, the Center for Bits and Atoms program manager, says members of the Ghana lab discovered the directions and are chomping at the bit to get started. Lassiter adds that members often write tutorials to help people in other labs use the standard manufacturing tools. Through this exchange of ideas, the labs are helping each other evolve to better serve their communities needs. Today, students in Ghana are making small parabolic dishes to boost cell-phone reception, but in a few years, those same dishes could be powering their entire lab with solar energy.