Fab Lab started more than a decade ago at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). The fab lab program was initiated to broadly explore how the content of information relates to its physical representation and how an under-served community can be powered by technology at the grassroots level. The program began as a collaboration between the Grassroots Invention Group and the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Media Lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a grant from the National Science Foundation (Washington, D.C.) in 2001.
While the Grassroots Invention Group is no longer in the Media Lab, The Center for Bits and Atoms consortium is still actively involved in continuing research in areas related to description and fabrication. The Fab Lab concept also grew out of a popular class at MIT (MAS 863) named “How To Make (Almost) Anything”. The class is still offered in the fall semesters.
Fab Labs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway. Activities in Fab Labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research. Projects being developed and produced in Fab Labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing, and rapid-prototyping machines.
MIT maintained a listing of all official Fab Labs, worldwide, until 2014. Nowadays listing of all official Fab Labs maintained by community using site fablabs.io. As of September 2015 there were 107 Fab Labs in the US and Canada, and 270 in Europe (565 in the world in total). Currently there are Fab Labs on every continent except Antarctica.
Originally designed for communities as prototyping platforms for local entrepreneurship, Fab Labs are increasingly being adopted by schools as platforms for project-based, hands-on STEM education. Users learn by designing and creating objects of personal interest or import. Empowered by the experience of making something themselves, they both learn and mentor each other, gaining deep knowledge about the machines, the materials, the design process, and the engineering that goes into invention and innovation. In educational settings, rather than relying on a fixed curriculum, learning happens in an authentic, engaging, personal context, one in which students go through a cycle of imagination, design, prototyping, reflection, and iteration as they find solutions to challenges or bring their ideas to life.
As support for advanced technical education and to provide a training path for new fab lab managers, Fab Academy, an internationally distributed campus for technical education, has emerged from the Fab Lab program. The Fab Academy provides instruction and supervises investigation of mechanisms, applications, and implications of digital fabrication.
In addition to Fab Academy, the network collaboration FabEd is being formed to provide support for formal education and resources for professional development for teachers and educators. The FabEd collaboration is a coordinated effort led by The Fab Foundation and the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES), to build and support the movement of digital fabrication into formal education. They want to keep the magic and joy of what making and digital fabrication bring to the table and make that a part of learning.
Fab Labs are closely aligned with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) where research into next generation tools and software, as well as fabrication work flows and processes is pushing up against digital-analog boundaries. CBA is charting a research road map that traverses the frontier of digital fabrication: from machines in a Fab Lab that make things, to machines that make parts of machines, to machines that self-reproduce, to building with digital materials, to materials that are programmable and can turn themselves into parts. As they progress along that research path, knowledge and best practices are disseminated throughout the Fab Lab network, making it a cutting edge laboratory for R&D.