I first started following the work of Neil Gershenfeld during my various visits to MIT Media Lab, and of course through his book Fab, along with speculating about fictional HP DeskFabs and Fabster P2P networks...a miniature attempt at Bruce Sterling-eqsue Design Fiction!
So it was a huge surprise to learn that Gershenfeld would be stopping by Manchester's Manufacturing Institute, last Tuesday, for a half-day discussion forum on the launch of the city's first Fab Lab. With 50-60 people in attendance, I was surprised that no one from Manchester's tech scene was there.
The morning opened with keynotes from the institute's CEO, Dr. Julie Madigan, Gershenfeld, New East Manchester's regeneration chief, Sean McGonigle, and Paul Jackson of the Engineering Technology Board (download the PDF flyer)
Here are some of the interesting snippets from the forum...
- Gershenfeld characterised digital/additive fabrication as materials that contain information - essentially embedding 'code' into materials.
- Gershenfeld 's influence on Squid Lab's Saul Griffith was evidenced by his illustration of sending design code into universal protein strings to 'fold & fab' 3D structures - similar to Griffith's TED talk noting that the 'secret to biology is the way it builds computation into the way it makes things'.
- The fab wet-dream of self-replicating Von-Neumann machines is nearing reality with the RepRap project - the rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines.
- Gershenfeld namechecked an experimental prototype alarm clock with which you had to arm wrestle to prove you were indeed awake!
- Fabrication is still at the 'mainframe' stage, with the greatest impact set to come from the personalisation of technology - analagous to the transition from mainframe to personal computers.
- Gershenfeld envisages an opt-in network of 'Fab Labs' across the globe - equipped with laser cutters, sign cutters, milling machines, electronics assembly and microcontroller programming - that can democratise manufacturing and mobilise people and projects across this network. A little like a super TechShop; the network currently includes locations in Jalalabad, Utrecht and Amsterdam.
Perhaps more interesting than the progress of the science, are the socio-economic drivers that're making the introduction of a Fab Lab to Manchester so appealing. The city was centrai to the industrial revolution, with it's eastern areas known as the 'workshop of the world' - apparently, the first transatlantic communications cable was manufactured in the Bradford area of East Manchester. Yet, though the area has found new purpose with the recent Commonwealth Games and the presence of Manchester City (the world's richest football club), large parts remain deprived and struggle in a post-industrial economy.
Regeneration officials see the Empowerment > Education > Problem Solving > Job Creation > Invention cycle of Fab Labs as a critical component in reviving manufacturing in the area, energising brownfield sites, as well as retaining local skills and raising educational standards. Upon being asked on Fab Labs' model for civic sustainability, Gershenfeld quipped that people 'don't ask whether public libraries have a model for civic sustainability' - implying that the labs hope to provide a similarly essential role in civic culture and education.
The city is due to open its first lab in late 2009, anticipating the 2010 edition of the city's Big Bang Fair for young scientists and engineers. The lab will be free for individuals, who will be encouraged to share their ideas and knowledge freely within the international Fab Lab community and beyond.
Personally, I'm really interested to see where the intersection of digital 'make' services like Etsy, Ponoko and Folksy, with the potential 'Napsterisation' of manufacturing. Indeed, my friend Steve, suggested that the d_shape robotic building system be used to 'endlessly replicate copies of the RIAA building!'
I'm wondering if Fab Labs has a natural analogy in the global coworking community - one for 'atoms', the other for 'bits' - indeed, is there a useful and natural crossover between these two grassroots global communities?