Is Making the Next Industrial Revolution?

New “fab labs” give today’s students the chance to tinker with high-tech tools and 3D printers. Some say they are preparing today’s students for the next economic revolution.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ab labs may not be on your radar, but they should be. Named by MIT professor and TED presenter Neil Gershenfeld after “digital fabrication,” the labs serve as an artists’ collective, a manufacturing plant, and a job training program all in one. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse delved into the burgeoning fab lab movement, and described their purpose quite succinctly. “Fab labs,” she said, “are community-based spaces providing members of the public access to high-tech equipment: for invention, for creativity, for learning.”

Equipped with vinyl cutters, mini mills, and 3D printers, among other high-tech tools, fab labs have been cropping up across the globe. Hesse reported that there are currently 150 fab labs around the world, and 150 more are under construction. While they certainly signify a kind of raw excitement both in and outside the maker community, some, like Gershenfeld and others, believe they represent a third industrial revolution.

Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired magazine, makes this argument in his new book “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution,” which delves into the impact of tinkerers on the U.S. economy.

“We’ve had two industrial revolutions,” said Anderson. “The first was the mechanical one, which replaced muscle power with machine power. The second was the computer revolution, replacing brain power with machine power.” Now, says Anderson, we are embarking on a third, which places the focus back on manufacturing—except, this time, with the aid of “smart machines.”

“The loftier goal of the fab lab is to reintroduce humans to the tactile experience of creation, a complicated goal in this age when hand-held mallets have been replaced by computer-controlled tools,” explains Hesse, who believes that fab labs will encourage people to question what it means to be “useful” in the 21st century.

If this is a signifier of the third industrial revolution, it is important for students to have access to these spaces and their accompanying mentors and tools. The “value of making” is one that experts, educators, and makers themselves have been trying to instill into young people. The hope is that one day there will be generations of workforce-ready content producers who are adept at using the tools afforded by advanced technology in a way that benefits their surrounding communities.

The problem? These labs obviously come with an expensive price tag, with 3D printers like the ShopBot costing more than $27,000. Luckily, a few policymakers have made it their business to see fab labs flourish. Illinois congressman (and physicist) Bill Foster, for example, recently proposed a bill vying for a National Fab Lab Network that would help provide funds and resources to fab labs across the country.

Foster was a successful teenage maker himself. He started a theatrical lighting company with his brother when we was 19 that now makes more than half of the theater lights in the country. He explained his impetus to back the bill, and to support the maker movement:

When I was a kid, you’d take apart lawn mowers, or rebuild hot rods, or take apart old radio and television sets and reconfigure the circuits to build wonderful, dangerous things. But that’s not available to kids today…. You can’t really take apart an iPhone and reconfigure the parts to do something wonderful. The most you can do is reprogram it with new apps. But it’s not the same as holding something you’ve designed.

If it passes, the National Fab Lab Network Act would, as Hesse put it, treat the labs like Little League or the VFW—“facilitating their creation, vetting prospective founders, matching donors with projects,” all of which are necessary to ensure the success of future the labs.

The new legislation is not the only financial boon to fab labs, either. The Hampton Township School District, located just outside of Pittsburgh, received a $20,000 grant in 2012 to design a mini fab lab of its own. The grant—which pertains to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics—was made available through The Center for Creativity and the Grable and Benedum Foundations. The grant will not only cover the construction of the fab lab, but will also fund the purchase of computer-aided design software, iPads, and laptops that will be compatible with the advanced technology in their new lab.

“The new lab will expand the district’s transition from a traditional technology education program to one with an engineering focus to help introduce engineering and computer science careers and spark student interest in those fields,” wrote reporter Bethany Hofstetter for

I don’t know about you, but I can hardly imagine having access to such tools as an elementary or middle school student. The opportunity that these tools and spaces provide to students—one that encourages them to build whatever they want—is awe-inspiring, and it’s this kind of inherent excitement stemming from the fab labs that has given the movement so much momentum. It kind of makes one wonder: How could we know about these opportunities and not make them available to students?

In their introduction to “Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators,” Margaret Honey and David Kanter wrote this about makers and the zeitgeist behind their movement:

All together, makers are seeking an alternative to being regarded as consumers, rejecting the idea that you are defined by what you buy. Instead, makers have a sense of what they can do and what they can learn to do. Like artists, they are motivated by internal goals, not extrinsic rewards. They are inspired by the work of others.

If that isn’t an outstanding ideal for future generations, I’m not sure what is.

Published May 08, 2013