As fab labs spread across U.S., modern-day tinkerers reimagine a nation that makes stuff

April 15, 2013

The construction permit for 1418 North Capitol St. was issued in October 1884 to a man named Henry Keller. He wanted the building to be two stories tall, tin-roofed, 24 feet wide and 60 feet deep, large for what he planned to use it for, which was a blacksmith shop. The most useful of useful trades — an occupation built on making things, on skill.

Over the course of a few years, Henry expanded the shop. He had 11 children, only two of whom made it to adulthood, one of whom also became a blacksmith, and he had retired by the time the 1920 Census rolled around.

And then:

Roaring Twenties, rouged knees, all that jazz. Depression and Dorothea Lange photos and wars. (No more horses = no more blacksmiths.) Automatic dishwashers, electric typewriters, progress, progress, and Bill Gates and clunky cellphones, then teeny cellphones, then ear-based cellphones, then Siri in your cellphone, connecting you to call centers in India. The iPad. Progress.

Now, today, in the spring of 2013, 1418 North Capitol St. is owned by Phyllis Klein, a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman with a smooth blond bob. One Wednesday morning in April, she gives a building tour — first of the upstairs, which has been converted into a showcase space, then the downstairs, which has become Fab Lab D.C., which is where everything is made.

And what is everything? Everything. (Ish.) Miniature chairs and a wide selection of earrings and LED lamps and the prototype for a “digital skin” wall and electronic gewgaws and gizmos, piled on tables, cheerfully cluttered.

The purpose of a “fab lab” is . . . is what? An artists’ collective? A manufacturing plant? A job-training program? Yes. (Ish.) Fab labs are community-based spaces providing members of the public access to high-tech equipment: for invention, for creativity, for learning. An aspiring inventor walked into a fab lab in Baltimore and used the space to manufacture a prototype for a camera-lens-cap holder — now you can buy a Cap Gorilla online for $14.99.

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to reintroduce humans to the tactile experience of creation, a complicated goal in this age when hand-held mallets have been replaced by computer-controlled tools. To make us useful again, or at least to make us question what “usefulness” means in the 21st century.

The next generation of tinkerers is here, and they’re armed with high-speed connections and 3-D printers.

“Here is our vinyl cutter,” Klein says, gesturing toward a machine that looks like a printer. “And this is our mini mill.” Beyond the mini mill is a laser cutter, and scattered around a workbench are screws and wires and bits of copper. “We make our own circuit boards,” says Klein, the co-founder and director of the lab. (Tag line: “If you could make almost anything, what would it be?”)

At the end of the long room is not a machine, but a poster depicting one. Not only the machine, but the things one could make with it: A kayak. A miniature house.

“The ShopBot,” Klein says, and she strokes the poster with the pleasure someone might take in caressing a new car or a stainless-steel refrigerator. The ShopBot is a computer-controlled router that can cut out any shape you can program into a computer. The model she wants, the one that would bring Fab Lab D.C. to the next level, costs about $27,000.

“The ShopBot is what we aspire to.”

Into the physical world

Five years ago, an MIT professor named Neil Gershenfeldgave a presentation at TED, the prestigious innovation conference known for packing big concepts into small slots — each lecture must clock in at under 18 minutes — with elevator-pitch titles like, “Why Are We Happy?” or “Schools Kill Creativity.”

Gershenfeld, a bearded man with a slightly nasal voice, wanted to talk about making things.

“We’ve had digital revolutions in communication and computation,” he said in the lecture, which became a widely circulated video. “But precisely the same idea hasn’t come out to the physical world.” To address that problem — the gap between existing technology and how well people actually know how to use it, Gershenfeld, who is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, began offering a course for graduate students called “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”

He anticipated a modest enrollment of engineers and physicists, but hundreds of students poured in, learning to use laser cutters and 3-D printers to build objects for which there was no blueprint, like an alarm clock that the user must wrestle to prove he is awake. He called the work space the “fab lab,” short for digital fabrication, not fabulous.

Gershenfeld got a grant from the National Science Foundation that required an educational component. So the Center for Bits and Atoms began to license the spread of fab labs, providing the blueprint for new labs, which are often grass-roots-generated and community-funded.

Each one looks a little bit different because each one is independently run. Some are housed in educational institutions, some are in the basements of libraries. Abroad, the spaces often slant toward usefulness: A fab lab opened in India, and participants built food dehydrators to keep their perishables from spoiling in the absence of refrigeration. In Norway, sheep herders built an electronic system to track their flocks’ movements. By contrast, a user at MIT’s original lab built a fanciful scream-storing machine — yell into it, and your shriek is captured, later to be released in the wild.

Open-source online tutorials helped connect individual labs with design software: If you could dream it, you could build it.

There are around 150 fab labs around the world and 150 more under construction — the total doubles every 18 months. Bill Foster (D), a congressman from Illinois, recently proposed legislation to create a National Fab Lab Network that would facilitate their spread.

In Washington, Klein and her husband, Alex Mayer, owned the building on North Capitol Street. They had leased it to a pharmacist for 20 years; when he moved, they needed something else to fill the space. Something that would serve the community, that would blend in with the “transitional” neighborhood a few blocks from the New York Avenue Metro stop. Klein and Mayer were both trained as artists; they liked the idea of the space being used for something creative.

In early 2010, a friend who had recently moved from Washington to Boston for a position as a visiting scientist at MIT — and who had herself enrolled in “How to Make (Almost) Anything” — phoned Klein and said, “I know what belongs in that building.”

The Fab Lab D.C. has been open for a little more than a year, but “open” is a relative concept. Klein recently wrapped up a multi-week spring series with students from St. Albans School who learned 3-D rendering and designed and cut out LED lamps. She also holds occasional public workshops, with volunteer experts teaching enrollees how to use the equipment. But she doesn’t have all the equipment she’d like, or the staff, or the money to get the equipment or the staff.

The enactment of a fab lab bill would assist with that growth. “We’ve been consumers of technology and manufacturing” for a long time, Klein says. “We used to have a native intelligence.”

We used to make things.

A third industrial revolution

That’s the big story, the why and the whither of fab labs.

When Henry Keller worked in his blacksmith shop on North Capitol Street, workers smelted iron, made engines, grabbed their lunch pails as they commuted to dingy shops to bang on things with other things to make yet more things. The grand nostalgia of American history is built on the sense that we used to be more useful. Capable. Handy. (We also used to die when we were 43, but nostalgia has a one-track mind.)

Part of this transition has surely been intentional — the gradual whitening of America’s collars, by which we have come to associate domestic and mechanical ineptitude with intelligence. When Gershenfeld, the fab-lab creator, was young, “I wanted to go to the vocational school” to learn to make things, he recounts in a telephone interview. “But I was told: ‘No, you’re smart — you have to go sit in a room.’ ‘No, you’re smart — you have to go tell other people what to do.’ ”

In recent years, the small-batch/maker movement has lobbied to reverse some of that trend. Makers attend Maker Faires while carrying copies of Make magazine; they raise funds for home-manufactured projects on Kickstarter and sell them on Etsy; they snack on artisanal pickles cured and brined in someone’s basement. Three-dimensional printers, which build objects by literally pouring them out, layer by layer, have become so prominent, and fetishized, that President Obama mentioned them in his most recent State of the Union address in the context of America’s economic salvation.

“We’ve had two industrial revolutions” so far, says Chris Anderson, the former editor in chief of Wired magazine whose recent book, “Makers,” outlines the impact of garage tinkerers on the American economy. “The first was the mechanical one, which replaced muscle power with machine power,” he says. “The second was the computer revolution, replacing brain power with machine power.”

Now, he says, we are embarking on a third industrial revolution — one in which humans again become manufacturers, this time with the aid of smart machines.

Back to North Capitol Street, just for a moment:

In 1974, after the space at 1418 North Capitol had stopped being a blacksmith shop, but before Klein and her husband bought it, it was the B and W Printing Co., says Paul K. Williams, a historic preservationist who does block-by-block analyses of D.C. locales. In March of that year, B and W Printing was the site of a Secret Service raid. The owners of B and W had used their facilities to print fake checks — a lot of them.

When 3-D printers learn to print real money, will the third industrial revolution be complete?

A national network

Rep. Bill Foster’s office is bright blue, almost electric, almost blinding. “When you visit an office like this, you feel like you’ve been somewhere,” Foster says, and he’s right.

Foster is the congressman representing Illinois’s 11th District, a narrow band covering a northern part of the state, where Chicago suburbs start to bleed into flat prairieland. He is a PhD physicist who worked on particle accelerators at Fermilab, and his first congressional campaign was endorsed by 31 Nobel Prize winners. “Then it went to 32 after Barack Obama won his prize,” he says. “But that’s a peace prize, so it’s not the same.”

He is also the congressman who, in March, introduced H.R. 1289 — the National Fab Lab Network Act.

“Something that’s missing with kids these days — and now I sound old,” he laughs. “But 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.” That’s what he and his brother did, starting a theater lighting company in their parents’ basement when they were 19 and 17, respectively. Electronic Theatre Controls now makes more than half of the theater lights in the country.

“But that’s not available to kids today,” he says. “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 passed, the National Fab Lab Network Act would treat fab labs like Little League or the Veterans of Foreign Wars — facilitating their creation, vetting prospective founders, matching donors with projects.

The people who believe in fab labs think they have the capacity to become workforce development programs, teaching the skills of the future. “It’s a distributed network of small-scale manufacturing,” says Sherry Lassiter, who heads the Fab Foundation, an organization dedicated to the start-up and upkeep of fab labs worldwide. “It’s small-scale manufacturing meets personal need.”

“We see this as a new kind of literacy,” Lassiter says. “Technological literacy.”

The ultimate goal of Foster’s bill is to plop down one fab lab for every 700,000 people in the United States, which roughly corresponds to a presence in each of the country’s 435 congressional districts.

A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage and in every congressional district in the land, a 3-D printer and a ShopBot.

Made in America(ish)

So what would we make, if we could make almost anything?

Back to that recent Wednesday morning: Klein has gathered makers from around the city to the fab-lab space, to eat breakfast and show off their projects. There’s a Catholic University instructor whose work on solar panel technology will be incorporated into the university’s entry in this year’s Energy Department Solar Decathlon. There’s an artist who learned to laser-cut her own display cases. There’s Kelly Zona, an architect who became so enamored of the idea of Fab Lab D.C. that she went on to get a job as manager of Baltimore’s fab lab.

Today, several people are clustered around Alex Baddock, who works for a company that sells 3-D printers and who has brought one for show and tell. He has also brought along an electric guitar, which he made using the 3-D printer — each piece fabricated one at time, then fitted together by hand.

He insists he’s not a great musician, but then, at everyone’s urging, he plugs the guitar into his iPad and obligingly does a few bars of classic rock.

“I actually play this more than my real Strat,” he confides to the crowd. He thinks it works just as well, if not better. “Of course,” he allows, “maybe that’s because my real Strat was made in Mexico. Maybe if I had a guitar that was made in America — ”

This guitar was made in America,” someone interrupts, pointing to the digitally fabricated guitar.

“Well,” Baddock says, “made in the Internet.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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