Magnificent machines

Inside AS220's Fab Lab
By CHRISTOPHER COLLINS  |  August 5, 2009

A machine that can make everything. It's been the stuff of science fiction for decades. But now, it's a reality. In fact, there's one in Providence.

Well, not quite. But local art collective, AS220, does house the closest thing to a make-it-all machine that the 21st century can offer: a Fab Lab. Short for Fabrication Laboratory, a Fab Lab is a room full of industrial manufacturing machines that look like they've been attacked by the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" laser. The lab at AS220 boasts an arsenal of photocopier-sized contraptions — laser cutter, small milling machine, vinyl cutter, and soon, a 3D printer, and plywood cutter — plus a host of computers and soldering irons. With that assortment of tools, a Fab Labber can make, well, just about anything.

The Fab Lab concept was developed by MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, who projects that the fabrication process will progress just like computer technology did — moving from room-sized behemoth for the uber-nerd to pocket-sized contraption for the every man.

If gargantuan assembly lines were the province of big-name manufacturers, then the Fab Lab is a place for cottage industry-style assembly of electronics. A place where anyone can invent and create virtually anything.

It allows us to innovate around our own needs," said AS220 Development Director David Ortiz. "Projects can be as humble or as ambitious as users want."

Some of the projects cooked up in AS220 Labs use the modern machines to enhance timeless crafts, like the lab's effort to revive decades-old fonts stored in the Providence Public Library or a local artist's utilization of the laser cutter to fashion complex origami.

The chief Fab Lab staffers, like Shawn Wallace and Brandon Edens, are pursuing more elaborate projects — complete with complex circuitry, intricate computer programming, and detailed milling designs. When they're not working on their own projects, though, the AS220 Labs staff generates revenue by producing mail-order, make-it-yourself electronics kits sold out of magazines, and by serving as instructors for fabrication classes. So far, every class held in the lab has been sold out. And the courses have attracted an eclectic mix of students, artists and teachers. John Duksta, a local systems and securities engineer, techie, and AS220 lab instructor, considers the diverse classes the perfect compliment for the limitless functions of the lab, "All those people in one room create a big snowball of creativity."

And AS220 Labs intends to keep on snowballing. Plans are in the works to upgrade and expand the lab, and with the help of video conferencing equipment, plus experience gained from a lab staffer's trip to a conference in India, AS220 Labs is poised to plug itself into the global Fab Lab network.

Keep your eye on the growing popularity of Fab Labs worldwide, as their potential is startling. If labs continue to connect and synchronize their information and equipment, labs will be able to share designs and assemble each others' inventions. If the global Fab Lab network matures more fully, David Ortiz speculates, instead of buying a device — an iPod, say — individuals will just download an iPod blueprint, bring it to a nearby Fab Lab and have the iPod "printed out" and assembled on the spot. It would be a grassroots manufacturing revolution that would make shipping to isolated islands and rural enclaves a whole lot simpler.

But, incredibly, visions of a grassroots revolution aren't even considered lofty thinking in Fab Lab circles. Keep evolving Fab Lab technology, Gershenfeld contends, and a real life Star Trek replicator may only be 20 years away.

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