A very interesting bill (full text here) is making its way through congress with support from both sides of the isle. It provides a charter to establish a National Fab Lab Network, and it may signal the beginning of a coordinated approach to make advanced manufacturing facilities within reach of many people. This charter provides the NFLN with organizational status akin to Little League Baseball. Congress has been keen to jump on the digital bandwagon for awhile now, but here the theme of economic and national security serves as the impetus to merge STEM education with local Fab Labs for the first time.
The Fab Lab concept was first institutionalized by MIT through what is known as the Center for Bits and Atoms, and the bill specifically recognizes this as its model. The program has worked for several years to create Fab Labs across the globe, with the goal of enabling innovative thinkers with tools to make their ideas a reality. The bill falls lock step into this mold, as it recognizes that “a coordinated public-private partnership will be the most effective way to accelerate the provision of infrastructure for learning skills, developing inventions, creating businesses, and producing personalized products.”
This bill is a good start, but just a beginning. It is not particularly ambitious in terms of distributing the Fab Labs. The bill recommends a minimum of one Fab Lab for every 700,000 people in the first ten years after its implementation. How did they get at this number? Divide the population of the United States by 435 Congressional Districts, and that gives every Congressperson one Fab Lab. Which sounds fair, but look at it this way: California would get 53 Fab Labs, and Montana gets 1. So people in rural areas are destined to be underserved by the NFLN, although momentum has been building on a parallel track through Makerspaces and Hackerspaces. There are also for-profit enterprises such as TechShop.
It is noteworthy that the above terms do are not found anywhere in the bill. Yet the Makerspaces and Hackerspaces are the result of a true grassroots effort by local individuals with many of the same goals as the Fab Lab Network. Can these facilities exist in parallel? No doubt there will be regulations that govern Fab Labs that would not sit well with many in the Maker/Hackerspace community. On the other hand, the potential for federal funds and instant nonprofit status may mean that locals get absorbed by the National Network over time.
Either way, in terms of STEM education the existence of a digital fabrication facility within reach of students is a good thing. Many schools do have a limited digital manufacturing capability, but many do not. A possible corollary effect of this legislation may be that schools themselves become part of the Fab Lab Network. Why not? If a state of the art facility were available to educators, the possibilities are endless. What if students became just as familiar with advanced manufacturing technology as they are with advanced communication devices today? Imagine the innovative technological solutions they will create to solve problems that are meaningful to them. They will have the knowledge and the tools to build what they imagine. They will take their personal interest in what they are learning at school to products they can design and manufacture as young entrepeneurs in the marketplace.
Let’s encourage the establishment of the NFLN. Chances are your students and community need an injection of empowerment through digital fabrication.