Neil Gershenfeld at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms is developing an awesome real-world technology. The "fab" in Fab Lab stands for both "fabulous" and "fabrication." Fab Labs bring rapid prototyping to people around the world, including Norway, Ghana, India, and Costa Rica. And now, he's talking about labs that can reproduce themselves (with human help).
I saw this a year ago, and thought it was really cool. But it's gotten even better since, as shown by the classes offered. A year ago, Gershenfeld offered a class called "How To Make (almost) Anything." Now, he's offering a second class: "How To Make Something That Makes (almost) Anything." And a recent press release notes: "Over time, Gershenfeld said, components of the labs will be replaced with components made in the labs until eventually the fab labs themselves are self-reproducing."
We have referred to molecular manufacturing as "an Industrial Revolution in a suitcase." But an Industrial Revolution in a building is almost as good, and that seems to be Gershenfeld's plan. According to the press release, a Fab Lab contains just $20,000 worth of equipment. And the labs are adapted to use inexpensive and locally available materials. They are already being used to produce telecommunication antennas, solar-powered machinery, and diesel engine parts.
If this technology develops quickly, it might provide a useful preview of the economics of molecular manufacturing. This would be a very good thing. We are used to economies and businesses growing at a few percent per year. But if a fab lab can build another fab lab in four months (just a plausible guess) then fab labs could grow at 800% per year. That might shake up the economists enough to get them thinking about technologies that can expand at 800% per week.
Gershenfeld says, "The most advanced technologies are needed in some of the least developed places." This is absolutely true. CRN hopes that whoever develops molecular manufacturing will have the wisdom to deploy the technology as successfully and helpfully as Gershenfeld's Fab Labs.