Remember the Star Trek Replicator machine? It made a copy of all the molecules of any given object and stored them in what would have to be the universe’s biggest database. Whenever Kirk or crew needed anything, the Replicator would cheerfully spit out a shiny new copy of the desired object.
We’ll probably need to wait a couple of centuries for someone with Spock-like intelligence to come up with a real world machine that’s as capable as the Replicator. Meanwhile MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms "Fab Labs" may be the next best thing.
The Fab Lab, first built in 2002, is a hands-on laboratory that provides the technology — typically open source — needed to build just about anything from inexpensive and readily available materials.
"The Fab Lab is a really early prototype of a personal Replicator," said Sherry Lassiter, CBA program manager. "The Fab Lab can’t push molecules around, but it can do maybe 10 percent of what a personal Replicator might do."
The labs have been deployed around the world, from Boston’s South End to far above the Arctic Circle. This summer a team from the MIT center set up a sixth field Fab Lab, based on the campus of the Takoradi Technical Institute in southwestern Ghana.
Like other Fab Labs, the Ghana lab has about $20,000 dollars worth of equipment — a 3-D milling machine, a table-top laser cutter, a computerized system for cutting and shaping plastic and other materials, along with associated computers, software, small electronics tools and component parts.
Of the various projects turned out in the lab, the locals in Ghana — from street children to tribal chiefs — were fondest of the florescent personalized pink plastic key chains, according to graduate student Amy Sun, who worked in the lab.
"At first blush this might not sound profound; however, most students showed up in our lab with zero computer skills," Sun said. "They so desperately wanted fluorescent pink key chains that they eagerly spent hours in the process, despite the fact that Ghanaians don’t have a lot of keys generally, so these objects weren’t all that useful."
Beyond key chains, the Ghana lab is working on practical projects, including antennas and radios for wireless internet networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. Fab Lab staff developed activities with local users to address unmet needs.
Sun said that kids picked up computing and design skills the fastest, and the younger they were the quicker they learned.
"Part of that was cultural; adults shouldn’t be seen making mistakes. Plus the adults were distracted by all the duties and responsibilities of being teachers and parents.
"The kids’ drive to learn was much stronger, focused and intense," Sun said. "Kids aren’t afraid to be wrong. As a result, by the time I left, I had 7- and 8-year-olds cutting and stuffing circuit boards and sort of understanding assembly code and how to manipulate it."
Besides the lack of computer skills and limited internet connectivity, the Ghana Fab Lab highlights other practical challenges in bringing high tech to developing areas. For example, with humidity near 100 percent and no air conditioning, the cardboard and paper used to make prototype objects turns soggy.
And in a country with a 2003 per capita income of $320, even the cheapest of materials can be hard to come by. One of the earliest tasks for Sun was to seek out readily available local supplies, such as veneer wood, coconut tree bark and rubber.
"Because our time was limited in Ghana to six weeks, MIT brought seed materials like acrylic and foam and colored paper for teaching and training," Sun said. "Actually, acrylic is readily available in Ghana, but it doesn’t come in fluorescent pink and it’s a bit expensive. But the point was to run out of materials we brought with us, because once you run out you are forced to find other materials, often better and more appropriate to your environment."
CBA director Neil Gershenfeld said that over time the components of the labs will themselves be replaced with new components made in the labs, until eventually the Fab Labs are totally self-reproducing. The technology isn’t there yet, but Fab Lab staffers believe that within a decade or two this could be feasible.
Lassiter said a future goal for Fab Labs is to use open-source hardware. That would enable staffers to make their own machines that work better for lab purposes. Currently, the labs use open-source software across the board, from the Linux operating system to all the applications used for 3-D design tools, circuit design tools, math tools, graphics tools and other equipment.
The first international Fab Lab was established in Cartago, Costa Rica, in July 2002 at the Costa Rica Institute of Technology. There, undergraduates work with high-school students as they build tools needed in schools or in their communities.
The Costa Rica effort was followed in June 2003 by a Fab Lab far above the Arctic Circle in Solvik Gård near Tromsø, Norway. In cooperation with engineers from Telenor, Norway’s largest telecommunications provider, and UPM-Kymmene, a Finnish paper manufacturer, that lab is now developing wireless networks and animal radio collars to aid nomadic herding.
The Fab Lab that opened in August 2002 at the Vigyan Ashram near Pabal in the western part of Maharashtra, India, has focused on developing agricultural instruments. Interests there include testing milk for quality and safety, and tuning diesel engines to run more efficiently, particularly with local biofuels.
Another Fab Lab, in Bithoor in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, (operated in cooperation with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur) is targeting 3-D scanning and printing for rural artisans, such as producing the wooden blocks used in Chikan embroidery.
"I think we’re going to try to deploy a Fab Lab in Washington, D.C., this fall," said Lassiter. "We’re sending another Fab Lab to northern Norway next spring for use by the reindeer and sheep herders there, and we have several countries pulling us by the lapels in their direction. The loudest voice on that front right now is Brazil."
Users of the Fab Labs have also begun to collaborate with each other. A delegation from the Norwegian Fab Lab recently visited the flagship Fab Lab at Mel King’s South End Technology Center in inner-city Boston to discuss their common interest in building community wireless networks.
"A high point of this visit was the former head of the Sami reindeer herders’ association singing a traditional joik (folk song) for the audience at a local restaurant," said Lassiter. "Future exchanges are planned between these communities. It’s amazing to see how open-source technology gets people excited and brings them together."