Since President Obama’s commitment in the State of the Union Address to support next generation manufacturing such as 3D Printing, the nation is waiting to see what kinds of tangible programs will emerge. With tight budgets, what can the government do to foster innovation?
Well, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (IL-11) is doing something to get the ball rolling that won’t rely upon taxpayer dollars. Rep. Foster will introduce the National Fab Lab Network Act of 2013 very soon. The Act would enable a federally-chartered non-profit organization, known as the National Fab Lab Network (NFLN), to serve as a central seed funding source for fab labs across the country. The NFLN will raise its own funds and help participants in the network start new Fab Labs.
At yesterday’s Science of Digital Manufacturing meeting sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Rep. Foster stated, “My goal is to see a FabLab in each of the 435 Congressional Districts!” The maker community is lucky to have a physicist in Congress, one of the very few who can understand the impact of Fab Labs beyond STEM education.
While education is a focus in the Fab Lab, it is not the traditional learning model. When Fab Labs say they are a place where anyone can make almost anything, they really do mean anyone, not just school kids. Kindergarteners, seniors, inventors, entrepreneurs and artists all learn the power of making things themselves.
Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, developed the Fab Lab concept in the late 90’s as part of outreach for a National Science Foundation Grant. As Dr. Gershenfeld reminded us at yesterday’s meeting that the coming Industrial Revolution is about digital fabrication, all manner of using bits to make its. This includes 3D Printing, other additive manufacturing tools, laser cutting and marking, and CNC machining, to name just a few.
There are currently over 150 Fab Labs in the world, so we have already demonstrated proof of principle. Fab Labs associated with schools have shown dramatic increases in test scores, not just for math and science, but across all subjects, including reading. I recently heard engineering college students from a Fab Lab in South Boston describe how they never would have considered majoring in engineering were it not for their Fab Lab experience.
Fab Labs also give anyone with an idea, a place to try new things. This lowers the barriers to market entry for new small businesses, and jumpstarts local economies. Products are now much more complex, and while early Silicon Valley companies could innovate in their garage, modern inventors need access to the myriad array of tools required for successful product development. Fab Labs provide that variety, as well as collaborators with fresh insights and complementary skill sets.
In addition, localities with Fab Labs are energized, and Fab Labs foster innovation across industries. Fab Labs then are important for everyone, since it is only innovation that solves the world’s problems.
Rep. Foster needs all of us in the Maker community to enlist our Congresspeople to support the bill! Contact your representative today!