Tuesday, September 27, 2011

City 5.0: The Economics of Personal Fabrication

Fab Lab Tulsa opened on a hot September 13th in 2011 amid the bussle of central Tulsa's Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood. It is incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit operating a 3500 square foot public access fabrication facility, making it one of the largest Fab Labs in the world.  Geographically, the nearest operating Fab Labs are in Kansas City, MO or Albuquerque, NM.  Remarkably there are no other operating Fab Labs in the entire Southern US. Its organization, its size and its location make Fab Lab Tulsa a truly unique enterprise.

This is all the more important because we are encountering a rapidly changing social and economic world. When dealing with change I like to quote a recent comment from the Executive Director of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK, Randall Suffolk, which is “if you dislike change then you're going to hate irrelevance.” Economically, our nation, our states and cities must confront the notion of irrelevance with a robust response. This response, I believe, should be in the form and practice of personal fabrication.

Personal fabrication, like in a Fab Lab or Hackerspace or Makerspace, is making things you need with tools which are accessible to you.  This IS the next industrial revolution, except that it won't be industrial, it will be personal.  People will use and develop custom products or technology which will impact their lives in ways profound and ordinary...from creating your own smart phone to building a kitchen table so your family can enjoy a meal together.

Fab Lab is short for “fabrication laboratory”. It originated with Dr. Neil Gershenfeld in 2001 at MIT and has since spread around the world embodied as over 100 Fab Labs where people “make (almost) anything”. Projects made in the lab range from furniture, to stickers, to environmental sensors, to robots, to UAVs, to sculptures, to small houses. Really you can make almost anything. Hackerspaces and Makerspaces function on similar principles as clubs or co-ops, and number in the hundreds as well.

Using a Fab Lab like the one in Tulsa is simple...don't postpone your first visit until you have an idea.  Come by Fab Lab Tulsa right now to see the machines, enjoy a tour and make a sample project like a key chain or bumper sticker.

In a broader context, making things you need using a local fabrication shop, like a Fab Lab, has radical economic consequences, analogous to the automobile and it's effects on the formerly ubiquitous horse and buggy. We live in a world now with fragile global supply chains, expensive fuel, increasingly complicated products and systems, and a growing ignorance about the basic computing tools and technology luxuries in our lives. Natural disasters, wars and the like show us that our lives are intertwined with global events.

Personal fabrication presents another outlook. If you can make almost anything from readily available raw materials then long, fragile and expensive supply chains could almost be eradicated; thus minimizing the effects of labor strikes or disasters in far away regions. Fuel costs could be drastically reduced because only raw materials and supplies are shipped, not finished goods. The benefit is that raw materials are typically durable, compact and cheap, while finished goods are typically bulky, fragile and expensive. Further, knowledge and expertise of our everyday tools becomes pervasive because we either produce or see the production of our own goods. Not only does production become personal, on a human scale; education becomes personal, through experiential and peer-to-peer learning.

The key opportunity is not the transmission of physical goods, as is our economy today, but the transmission of data, designs and ideas. For example, a transaction in the fab economy might be the purchase of a bicycle. Presently, the bike is bought “ready to ride” at one of several retail shops. In the fab economy, the transaction might be in a Fab Lab where the computer design files and raw materials are purchased, but fabrication happens right in front of you, either by you or by someone else. A bicycle is a simple example but complicated technology or robotic devices could be done the same way.

The implications for our economy are far reaching. City zoning for industry could be discretized from large and monolithic production sites into multiple micro-sites which, by comparison, are exceptionally scalable for output and product type. Industrial parks and long commutes could be reduced or eliminated. In essence, because the conventional centralized factory concept is democratized into many mini production sites the paradigm of the industrial revolution is broken. Data and information, which is very cheap to transmit, becomes the primary focus of the supply chain. The notion of the retail economy is changed forever because the functions of production, distribution and retail are no longer separated. They are combined into a single personal fabrication micro-site.

The fab economy is already growing in the US and internationally.  Fab Lab Tulsa is among about 34 in the US. In other regions, there are three Fab Labs in Detroit alone and five in the state of Ohio. These are “rust-belt” regions which now recognize the step change which is required to leap frog national and global competitors. The most ambitious global Fab Lab project is in Barcelona, Spain. Spain, as the news reports, is an economy and government in crises. However, the city leaders in Barcelona, working with the four Fab Labs therein, have devised plan to bring Fab Labs to nearly every corner of their metro. Quite simply, Barcelona will be the world's first Fab City.

The city planners in Barcelona would tell you that a Fab City can be considered City 5.0. Version 1.0 was an agrarian settlement. Version 2.0 had basic transportation infrastructure but no utilities. Version 3.0 has modern utilities and infrastructure. Version 4.0 of the city, today, is electrified with modern internet communications and zoning ordinances. Version 5.0 is a city networked with fab labs which import raw materials and data for producing the city's needs ranging from environmental sensors to kitchen utensils; and which exports designs, data and intellectual property to be used in production in other locales.

The next evolution in our cities and in our economy is the adoption of personal fabrication. This approach to commerce is the ultimate just-in-time system which minimizes environmental impact, empowers entrepreneurship and education with cutting edge technology, and brings resources to the public the likes of which they've never experienced before.

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Matthew Norris is Board President of Fab Lab Tulsa, Inc. and is one of the principal founders of the organization.  He and his wife Diama formed the Fab Lab Tulsa team formed in late 2008 and worked with local, national and international partners for three years to bring the Fab Lab concept to life in Tulsa.  He has dual degrees in mechanical engineering, and is a licensed professional engineer with over 10 years of aerospace experience in computer simulations, advanced material systems and biologically inspired structures.  He has one lovely daughter named Eva.

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