Blair Evans is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an entrepreneur. For the past 15 years, he’s been the superintendent of a group of charter schools for troubled kids in Detroit, and in 2010 he opened the city’s first Fab Lab inside one of his schools. The do-it-yourself factories are designed to make it easier and cheaper for ordinary people to turn an idea into a product. Every Fab Lab includes a computer-controlled laser, a 3D printer, and a pair of computer-controlled milling machines—all connected by custom software.
“We’re building people, not just products,” Evans says. “We get better outcomes if the kids can engage in useful work. This is much more effective than having them sit on a couch and talk.” His Detroit lab, he says, “comes up with 20 different ways to customize a bike.” Evans added a water jet cutter to the workshop: “Most Fab Labs don’t have one of these,” he explains, “but we wanted one. It cuts titanium and steel. We use it to make gears for bicycles that we’re creating with modularized components, which allows people to adjust the heights or customize the controls.”
The initial Fab Lab in Detroit cost from $200,000 to $250,000 to assemble, and Evans put his own money behind the project. A second one has opened in another of his schools, and Evans says both have paid for themselves with social-service contracts for youth development.
“Commercial success isn’t just selling products,” says Neil Gershenfeld, a professor who runs the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms and came up with the idea for Fab Labs a decade ago. “In Detroit, they are selling life transformation by working with at-risk youth.” Gershenfeld didn’t set out to create a network of high-tech workshops; he was thinking about how to make a Star Trek replicator. He set up a lab at MIT with off-the-shelf, industrial-grade tools that could make physical products from digital designs.
That turned into the prototype for what’s now a network of about 200 Fab Labs in 40 countries. All the designs are open source and the labs sometimes work together. Folks at a Fab Lab in Boston started to make antennas, radios, and terminals for wireless networks. The design was refined at a lab in Norway, tested at one in South Africa, and deployed from one in Afghanistan. It’s now the basis for a commercial operation in Kenya. Someone working at a lab in Manchester, England, came up with a device made from plastic, glue, and metal connectors to increase the storage space of Apple (AAPL)‘s MacBook laptops. The Nifty MiniDrive is now available for $39.99.
In Detroit, meanwhile, the laser cutter is “the go-to machine,” says Evans. “We use it for small projects and prototyping scale models of most larger projects. You can produce things in plastic, composite, wood, cardboard. We prototyped a modular series of furniture that can be reconfigured with rubber mallets to form tables, stools, and benches.”
The milling machines, which the labs have in large and small sizes, are used to carve out metal, wood, and other solid material. “We’re producing 980-square-foot homes made of plywood and some standard timber,” says Evans. “They are net zero in terms of energy, even in this climate. We have one up already in one of our schools.” Soon there will be a third Fab Lab in Detroit’s 20-acre EcoDistrict that will turn out energy-efficient wood houses. And the EcoDistrict will make use of permaculture and an aquaponic system built in the Fab Lab.