Volume 7, number 1, February 2012 (english version)
In a Fab Lab near you
Technological change as a vehicle for social change
Autonamy and access
In a Fab Lab near you
A Fab Lab is a fabrication workshop that puts computer controlled machine-tools, traditional tools and a certain know-how at its users disposal, in order to accompany them in the development of their projects. At the heart of a Fab Lab, you may find the creator, the artist, the fiddler or the citizen who use the communal space to satisfy their need or desire to create.
Originally put in place by Neil Gershenfeld, a professor at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, a Fab Lab is a tool for democratizing production that goes far beyond a simple workshop. What can be found at a Fab Lab are revolutionary tools such as 3D printers which produce solid objects by printing thin layers of plastic on a surface. One can also find the means to quickly create an object conceptualized by a computer-aided design (CAD) software. In addition to these new age printers, Fab Labs also have milling machines which engrave different types of material, laser die cutters which cut small pieces and electronic equipment extremely precisely in order to create electronic circuits that can be used to repair devices or even make a robot. On the basis of these innovative tools and the sharing of knowledge, Fab Labs aim at opening the doors of object production to the public in the same way that the Internet democratized journalism, communications and the world of publication.
This approach, which fits into the Do-It-Yourself movement, which is becoming more and more popular, is now at our fingertips and leads one to believe that our world will be deeply changed. This movement, which is now booming all around the globe, allows citizens to appropriate the means to fabricate objects, increase their knowledge of the digital and physical universe and to break out of the patterns of traditional consumption.
Technological change as a vehicle for social change
The developments in watchmaking over the past centuries held a significant impact on our conception of time. In the same vein, the evolution of printing, from the Gutenberg press to laser printing today, has revolutionized the way in which we transmit and share information. If printing presses were tremendous tools for the mass production of books, posters or flyers, it took only time before the arrival of ink jets to realize the potential of personal printing and democratize printing.
One can notice a similar evolution relative to the computer. The first machines which calculated mechanically were very limited and depended on the advanced knowledge of the user. Next comes the first computers, colossal beasts which could only be found at certain companies, universities and public administrations and that required in depth technical expertise. The emergence of personal computers (PC) in the early 80s saw them entering our homes and today, we carry more and more powerful computers in our pockets.
The technological evolution of personal computers and their peripheral devices made the delocalization of work possible. More and more people choose to work from home, from a café, from a co-working space or on the road. For example, Moby, the acclaimed musician, recently released an album on his website that was entirely produced and recorded in hotel rooms during his most recent tour. It was only a few years ago that professionally recording an album in a location other than a specialized studio would have been unthinkable. This new era brings us to think about the redefinition of the spaces we use for work and creation and pushes us to reconsider the way in which we produce the objects with which we interact.
Parallel to this phenomenon, the process of fabrication is seeing a similar (r)evolution to that which marked information technology. Today, Fab Labs offer a communal approach to fabrication. Thanks to the merging of a certain know-how and digital fabrication tools, Fab Labs provide the means to create objects, which were previously reserved for corporate and industrial worlds, available and accessible to communities. Fab Labs are also spaces for the dissemination of knowledge based on collective cognition and sharing. In fact, the Fab Lab charter stipulates that the concepts and processes developed at a Fab Lab must remain available for individual use even if the intellectual property may be protected. We can then speak of open knowledge that is shared and disseminated in communities.
We can without a doubt affirm that the future will be understood glocaly. As a a hybrid of both global and local,the glocal is a new conceptualization of spaces where local places are integrated in a global ecosystem. It consists of taking advantage of the local resources at our disposal while exploiting international networks and information.
The personal and communal means of fabrication hold the potential to bring the production of objects to a human scale. For example, we can imagine that the establishment of a Fab Lab in a remote Northern Canadian village would allow to produce, at low cost, the necessary pieces for the maintenance of infrastructures in a much faster manner than if the pieces were transported from the South across a traditional chain of supply. Communal digital fabrication also allows to adapt the fabrication to any specific environment, by integrating itself into the recycling cycle and by using locally available resources. Finally, it also adapts its production to the needs and desires of the members of any specific community without having to depend on centralized powers, be they political or commercial. Therefore, a space of fabrication anchored in a community can generate a creative environment that responds to that community’s needs and encourages local economic development by allowing users to develop a specific know-how and new technologies that can thereafter be used to establish a small business or even contribute to cultural development.
This type of local fabrication is not isolated from international and globalized distribution networks. Thanks to the evolution of communications networks, we saw new distribution platforms appear that encourage the circulation of creativity. These allow artists, ideologists and producers to distribute their products and to access raw materials that were beforehand difficult to find locally. The website Etsy.com, for example, allows thousands of artists to distribute their creations, no matter the place of conception. The revolution of augmented reality, which allows virtual elements to be superimposed in the physical world, threatens to change our definition of the art gallery and the museum. It is important then to integrate the forthcoming methods of local fabrication with the global distribution networks to stimulate their respective growth.
The glocal aspect of Fab Labs also questions existing structures, particularly the use of intermediaries between producers and consumers, which is becoming more and more outdated. We can think of the decline of the music industry as an example of restructuring of these networks. More and more artists distribute their music themselves by means of the Internet without the use of an intermediary record label. If the industry declines, the consumption of the product continues to progress. We can therefore envisage an similar evolution in the field of personal fabrication which would result from the implantation of Fab Labs and the distribution of personal fabrication tools.
Autonomy and access
The admitted goal of Fab Labs goes well beyond the simple production of objects or even social change. Before anything, Fab Labs aim at providing individuals and communities the necessary knowledge for taking hold of our collective future. By transferring the activities of fabrication and creation to the heart of communities, its members can acquire the knowledge for mastering tools and distribute the knowledge necessary to become autonomous. The technological democratization objective of Fab Labs also aims at increasing access to fabrication technologies in order to favour creation. This open access to new realms of digital fabrication in addition to the sharing of knowledge holds the potential to revolutionize the development of companies, to favour the technical, scientific, artistic and cultural development and to change the way the understand out social connections.
This optimism concerning the changes to come in our societies is inherited from visionaries that dreamed of the communications networks we have today. Although Fab Labs are still at their humble beginnings, these spaces attract nonetheless numerous pioneers of digital creation that bring together their know-how and their ideas, convinced that a new revolution is at our door.