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'Fab labs' deliver high-tech tools

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"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.

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