When the crew of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation needed to produce an object on demand to deal with a conflict, they would use their replicator to create whatever they needed. The replicator is one of the most important piece of technology in the Star Trek, and is used primarily to produce food, water, and clothes on board starships, thus eliminating the need to store provisions. The technology is also used for producing spare parts, which makes it possible to repair most ship damage without having to return to a starbase. Other applications include replication of Starfleet uniforms, as well as everyday objects such as toys and souvenirs.
While it isn't quite the magical wave of hand envisioned in Star Trek, a new digital revolution is coming. Digital fabrication will soon allow people to design and produce tangible objects wherever and whenever they need them. Glowforge is building a maker machine to compete with Amazon Prime - to make it easier for consumers to make something homemade than it is to buy something from the store. SOLS is making use of 3-D printing to custom print shoe insoles that help alleviate foot and back pain, among other ailments. The Press Fit Standing Table, was a project that came out of a class at MIT Media Lab. Bevel turns your phone into a 3-D scanner you can use from anywhere. Recently, Formlabs, the 3-D printer company that started out of MIT, recently closed a $35 mm Series B, to enable more makers to manufacture tangible objects from their home.
Will it soon be cheaper for consumers to make something from the comfort of their home or office and to have it customized for their own personal preferences?The digital fabrication revolution has been driven forward by start-ups, fabrication labs and universities research that have sprung up around the world from Singapore to London to Brazil. Many of these fab labs share the same equipment and structure, including laser cutters, 3-D printer and scanners, printed circuit board cutters, and other machines to facilitate computer-controlled design, communication and machinery. These tools provide an environment for anyone who is interested to make things to head to these labs to create things.
Imagine the possibility of fabricating food, clothes and furniture in developing countries, 3-D printing surgical tools for doctors in rural areas, or building machines to help in humanitarian efforts in cases of disasters. There are a wide range of useful applications from healthcare, technology start-ups to education. As part of my research work at MIT Media Lab, I was in a class called "How to Make Almost Anything". It was led by Professor Neil Gershenfeld from the Center of Bits and Atoms. The focus of the class was to arrange a group of students from varying background to learn a set of tools across 3-D printing and scanning, computer-controlled design and machinery, embedded programming, interface and application programming, and electronics design. During the class, we were expected to learn a new fabrication skill every week, and we all worked in fab labs. Each student in my class completed several different projects to integrate the skills that we learned. These projects were all created out of the fab labs by makers who made use of the different tools available to replicate something that they envisioned or wanted, much like the replicator in The Star Trek. Some of the cooler projects include the following (including clear instructions on how to make it):
2) Press-fit Go-Kart - Electric go-kart, with a chassis made entirely of press-fit parts and composites
3) Magic Hoop - Automated basketball arcade game built for the home
4) Deployable Wall Plotter - Portable, deployable wall plotter robot
5) Composite speakers - Burlap-made composite speakers
Although there is a wide range of different funding models and sites across the world, there is a clear fab lab movement up-rising across the world, one that is promoting creation, invention and making. Digital fabrication is changing the way that we look at production, and there has been increased access to people who can be creators from their garages or from the nearby fab labs in their neighborhoods. Entrepreneurs across the world today have access to a wide range of these tools, from 3-D printers and scanners, to laser cutters, and can ride on the fab lab movement to come up with innovative ideas and solutions to problems that they may face in their everyday lives. As the cost of digital fabrication is being reduced, creative inventors around the world can leverage upon online resources and open source projects to learn from each other, and to come up with creative projects or ideas that may create impact or change in different parts of the world.
The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that by 2020, there will be 9.2 million jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States. However, college degrees in these fields have not kept pace, especially among underrepresented groups including minorities and women. Digital fabrication represents a new avenue for this clear mismatch in supply and demand. It also levels the playing field for students, entrepreneurs and inventors from different backgrounds, races, gender or economic status. Open-source data and online resources, and access to fab labs have democratized inventing and creating, increasing access, and strengthening the do-it-yourself maker movement and to learn from each other.
From my perspective, the fab lab movement is a social one, creating a platform for people to connect, explore and learn together. The ability to leverage upon online resources, the openness of creating an environment to learn, and the ecosystem of inventors, entrepreneurs, and students will make it possible for people to share knowledge and co-create. The digital revolution is here to stay, and will become increasingly accessible to people around the world in the next 5-10 years. Disruptive start-ups are also working hard to bring that technology more accessible to consumers like you and me. The central question is, "How will our lives change when we can make anything from anywhere, on-demand?"
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