By Clark Boyd
Of all the cool, futuristic machines featured on the television series Star Trek, the "replicator" was certainly one of the most useful.
MIT pays for equipment and the host country provides a place
A character simply asked for a cup of tea, and voila - the replicator would make a cuppa.
A machine that can make anything sounds like the stuff of the distant future, but a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) program is making personal fabrication a reality.
Around the world, MIT is helping to build Fabrication, or "Fab" Labs, and they are reaping results.
Haakon Karlsen's farm sits hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle. The tinkle of sheep bells is a constant reminder that humans, and their animals, have carved out a life here for thousands of years.
He spends a lot of time thinking about how technology can help him tend his flock. "It's not easy to collect sheep in the fall, when it's dark," Karlsen says, pointing to the nearby peaks.
"Some sheep are always left up in the mountains. So, in 1998, I started to use the first radio around the neck, for sheep up in the mountains."
Karlsen modified a cell phone with Global Positioning System capabilities. He strapped the phone onto a sheep collar. The phone sends a text message with the coordinates of the sheep, and more.
"The phone also sends information about whether the sheep are moving or not," says Karlsen. "It tells us what the temperature is, and so on. It tells us a bit about the condition the sheep are in up in the mountains."
Karlsen's mobile phone for sheep is a perfect example of what MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld calls "personal fabrication".
"By personal fabrication, what I mean is ordinary people creating, rather than consuming technology, creating technology to solve local problems," Gershenfeld says.
Gershenfeld directs MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, a program whose future aim is inspired by the replicator idea from Star Trek.
"The research is aiming to make a molecular assembler, one machine that can build, on a molecular scale, anything," says Gershenfeld.
At first glance, that research might seem to have little to do with ordinary people and local problems. But then Gershenfeld discovered what he calls "a small side hack" that has practical benefits.
Since it started four years ago, the centre has had an outreach program that allowed people of all ages to use some of the lab's software and machines.
With minimal training, children and adults alike were designing and fabricating their own toys, jewellery, and even their own circuit boards.
Gershenfeld dubbed the pared-down set of tools and software that the centre made available to lay people a Fabrication, or Fab Lab. He built one in Boston, and another in Costa Rica.
"In a world of Fab Labs, you can think about the other five and a half billion brains on the planet not just as potential consumers, but as creators, as inventors.
"Creation itself can become much more distributed, and you can bring not information technology, but IT development to the masses. You can close what you might think of as a fabrication divide."
Gershenfeld helped set up a Fab Lab in Karlsen's barn a couple of years ago. But so many people came to use it, Karlsen decided he needed to expand.
With help from the Norwegian government, the Norwegian sheepherder built a Viking-style Great Hall to house a Fab Lab which opened last month.
Inside, next to the sheepskins, banks of PCs with high-speed internet connections hum away.
MIT pays for equipment and the host country provides a place
The Fab Lab machines include a sign cutter and a laser cutter. There is a 3-D computer milling machine with enough precision to make circuits.
The software that tells the machines what to do is open source, and has been created by so-called "Fab Labbers" from across the globe.
John Silvester Boafo stands next to a small scale, metal prototype of what he calls a fu-fu pounder. "In every Ghanaian home, the main dish is fu-fu," says Boafo, Principal at the Takoradi Technical Institute, home to Ghana's Fab Lab, which opened last year.
"Fu-fu is made of plantain and cassava, which are cooked," he explains.
"After they are cooked, they are put into a mortar, and pounded by hand. People go through hard labour, just to get a meal to eat.
"So, we thought we could fabricate this machine to alleviate the hard labour they use in pounding." Boafo says the fu-fu pounder is a good example of the practical projects that the Ghanaian Fab Lab wants to tackle.
One of India's Fab Labs is also working on local solutions to local problems. It has low-cost lighting projects, and is developing a device that will help local farmers test whether the milk they have collected has gone bad.
Others focus on education and training, such as Costa Rica, where there are "construction camps" to teach students the basics of design and engineering.
In setting up the labs, MIT pays for the equipment, which can cost between $25,000 and $40,000. The host country or institution provides a place to put the equipment.
Fab new level
South Africa is now taking the Fab Lab idea to the next level. The government there is fronting the money for both equipment and space, not just for one Fab Lab, but for an initial round of four of them.
The first is being built just outside of Pretoria, in what is billed as South Africa's first "science park," according to Sushil Borde, who heads the government agency in charge of the Fab Lab roll-out.
It is not fully operational, but interest is high. "We have these very high-tech small start-up companies that are excited by the proximity of the lab," Borde says.
"The companies say, 'We have these brilliant ideas, we have these business models, but we don't know how to get these ideas into tangible products.'"
Borde hopes that a network of Fab Labs will enable South African entrepreneurs and engineers alike to test their ideas, and "fast track the process of growth and development".
The network of labs is also paying dividends for research at MIT. Graduate student Amy Sun is working on designs for small solar reflectors that are easy to manufacture.
Sun, who has helped set up labs, had the idea because almost everywhere she went she found a lack of locally available power.
"It's extremely frustrating," Sun says. "We spend a lot of time picking machines that can make nearly anything, and we're all stuck with this one little problem, which is that we can't plug into anything.
"The idea here is to think about getting power not from a central source, but from a small reflector that you can put anywhere you need it."
It is a possible solution not just for Fab Labs, but for any part of the world with power problems. MIT's Gershenfeld says that the problem-solving potential of Fab Labs is causing an explosion of interest in the project.
Solar arrays could help local communities power their own creations
He thinks that, more fundamentally, the idea of personal or small-group fabrication has tapped into the primal need that some people have to create things, to modify the world in which they live.
Standing in Karlsen's lab, Gershenfeld says: "This large, Viking-style building is how you build not just a room, but a community. This isn't a corporation, this isn't a university, it is sort of a hub of a global network. It is a new organisational structure."
"In a way, the Fab Labs are havens for inventive outliers in society."
Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production