FAB CITY FAQs
What is a Fab City?
In 2014, the City of Barcelona and Fab Lab Barcelona created the Fab City program. Barcelona made a commitment to a fully circular economy - producing everything it consumes - within 40 years, by the year 2054. They invited cities from around the world to join them in this commitment, and Fab City was born.
The Fab City project emerged from the Fab Lab network, and is based on several key ideas:
Machines which manipulate materials are evolving quickly
Materials which can change manufacturing processes are emerging
The combination of new machines and new materials mean increasing capability to produce in local centers
The movement of materials around the world as we currently do is energy-intensive, pollution- and greenhouse gas-generating, and creating long-term damage to both our societies and our planet
When designs can be generated in one place, and products built close to their customer, we shift from the import and export of materials (atoms) to the import and export of bits (data)
What the heck is a Fab Lab?
Fab Labs came from a program at MIT that started in 2003 - a class called 'How to make (almost) anything'. This class invited students to learn to design fabricate objects using digital means - additive methods like 3d printing, and subtractive ones like milling and cutting. The capstone project for each student was the product or object they first learned to design and make, then actually made.
By teaching this class, a set of machines and a curriculum emerged, which other universities adopted, creating new Fab Labs, and eventually a network of them throughout the world. Over time, Fab Labs began to appear in other settings: in the developing world, in trade schools and lower education, on buses, at disaster sites, and more. As of August 2018, there are over 1,300 Fab Labs worldwide, with that number doubling roughly every 18 months.
Fab Labs are a particular variant of the 'makerspace', which is a broader concept that includes everything from a cabinet with scissors, paper and glue to a factory which produces goods at volume. Fab Labs are an open source community, where lab leadership work together on shared intiatives, share information, and start large-scale projects like Fab City.
Why are machines important?
Maybe you've heard about, or even seen or used a 3d printer. This is a relatively new category of machine. The first 3d printers were invented in the 1980s, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Until about 2010, a 3d printer would have cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Today, a pretty good 3d printer that you can put on your desktop costs less than $1,000.
At the same time that the cost of 3d printers has been dropping, the printers have gotten better. Today's affordable printers can print in multiple different materials, often in the same job. Various companies are printing with metal, ceramic, concrete, clay, and vegetable plastics. The machines are getting faster, and more precise. Large manufacturers are using 3d printing to produce products at large scale, while others are using them to quickly make prototypes of new designs, or to illustrate complex problems.
Also, while this has been happening, 3d printers have become increasingly easy to use. The various pieces of software that users use to design objects, send them to the printer, and operate the machine, have all gotten cheaper and easier for non-engineers to use. The printers themselves have gotten mechanically better, making print jobs more consistent and reliable. Apps that allow design and print from a smartphone are emerging, and quickly getting better.
If you've been around technology for a while, you might recognize some themes in this story. The computer started in the 1940s, and emerged into business in the 1960s. The personal computer emerged in the 1980s, and quickly became faster, cheaper, and easier to use. As it did, computers appeared everywhere: in schools, libraries, offices, homes, and eventually embedded in devices, and ubiquitous in our pockets. Increased exposure led to increased adoption which created acceleration in innovation.
The 3d printer is just one example of a machine that will follow this curve. The laser cutter, the CNC mill and router, the robot arm, the drone and ground-based robot, are some others. Still others haven't been invented yet.
Where will this take us?
The increasing sophistication, decreasing cost, and accelerating proliferation of these technologies can help decrease the cost and risk involved in creating a factory.
When we extrapolate this further, we can imagine a system which might fit in our home, and allow us to produce the clothing, linens, dishes, and other things we need on a daily basis. We might need to go to a neighborhood hub where our furniture is made, when we need it, and to our specification. Our buildings might be made by these machines. Old materials (of new types) reclaimed by these processes and made available for new production.
Some of these machines are really micro-factories. Some collections of machines are mini-factories. They are highly adaptable, unlike the large macro-factories of today. Some might be built and operated by large companies. Some might be highly specialized and created by local companies for local applications.
These mini- and micro-factories can make it easier to imagine, create, and use a new widget. New widgets form the basis of new products. Commercial opportunities arise from the design and creation of widgets, the assembly into new products, and the installation of these products for their intended application.
Why should I care?
Most of us will be directly and dramatically affected by this shift.
If you work, your job and the skills required to do it will change
If you teach, you'll need to teach new things in new ways
If you set policy, you'll need to be smarter and more creative
If you start or run businesses, there is tremendous opportunity in this space
Especially for those of us who will live through the next 30 years or so, these changes will sweep across so much of our lives, and we'll be forced to become increasingly adaptable. We'll all need to shift from the rigid structures created by our factory system to succeed.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, actually a lot.
We live in a society where a small number of individuals have a tremendous amount of power and influence. This won't change just because machines get better. In fact, machines might make it even easier for those people - the CEOs of large companies and their shareholders - to dictate how these technologies will actually be implemented.
If, at the end of this revolution in technology, we're left with a few global companies owning and operating all the infrastructure that emerges, we've missed a tremendous opportunity to undo a bit of the damage done by our industrial systems - to our planet, and to our people.
To truly realize the goals of Fab City, we need to ensure the inclusion of those who are outside this power structure. We need new ways of deploying capital for the benefit of our local economy, ecology, and community members. We actually need to democratize capital in order to democratize technology. A circular economy means collaboration, responsibility, investment and commitment.
How can I participate?
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