Last week I met the man who is aiming to make the Star Trek replicator machine a reality and the people that are bringing his prototype to the UK for the first time and putting it in East Manchester.

By the end of the year the former workshop of the world will once again be equipped with the tools to “make almost anything”. It will also be part of a global network of so-called Fab Labs (Fabrication Laboratories) stretching from rural India to northern Norway and from inner-city Boston to coastal Ghana. 

"To boldly go ... to Beswick!"

"To boldly go ... to Beswick!"

The replicator machine first appeared on board the Starship USS Enterprise commanded by Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The machine could conjure up anything from a cup of earl grey tea (the Captain’s favourite) to a pair of nail clippers on command.

It worked (okay, in theory it worked) by rearranging subatomic particles to form molecules and then arranging the molecules to form the object according to a pre-programmed code. So it is quite right that this advanced sci-fi technology finds a home in Manchester. After all it was in this city that atomic theory was pioneered by John Dalton and that the atom was first split by Ernest Rutherford.

So does the Fab Lab really rearrange subatomic particles? No. There is a little way to go yet but as Prof. Neil Gershenfeld from the Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT in Boston told his Innovation Manchester audience at The Manufacturing Institute last Wednesday that it is only a matter of time. No-one had the audacity to ask whether he meant decades or centuries.

In the meantime, Fab Labs are very much physical things, designed to fit on a trailer, each one has digital design capability integrated with machines that can be programmed for production. The machines make the parts for the designer to assemble. There are some good examples of what has been made before on the Centre for Bits and Atoms website including the amazing scream bag.

The global networking element of Fab Labs means that designs can be shared by email and goods produced on the other side of the world with no shipping costs other than for raw materials. It’s not replication but it is pretty clever and there is further to go.

Advances in information technology since the 1970s have brought us from the room-sized computer to the desk-top PC. So, Gershenfeld argues, why not imagine that we can move from a Fab Lab the size of a trailer to a desk-top personal fabrication machine in the next four decades? Every home should have one and we should all be able to make what we want when we want it..

Of course there is an important people factor too. If nothing else the Fab Lab in East Manchester will be a valuable hands-on resource in a community where some people have struggled to find a place in traditional education, employment or training.

However, the Fab Lab approach has the potential to be a lot more radical than simply trying to pick people up that are outside the system and bring them into the system. Rather the Fab Lab concept appears to offer the potential to catapult people that are currently outside the traditional economy into the position of influencers or even leaders of that economy; inventive, imaginative and innovative.

There were some comments at the event about how the Fab Lab could create new generation of entrepreneurs and encourage enterprise in deprived communities. That may be so, but I got the impression that Neil Gershenfeld and his colleagues want to go much further than that.

They want to pioneer a revolution in industrial production in the twenty-first century on at least as massive a scale as that experienced by Manchester in the nineteenth century. A personal fabrication machine could transform our relationship with the production process and lead to trade being based around the value of goods rather than the monetary value that we place on goods.

Before I listened to Neil Gershenfeld’s presentation I thought that I understood Fab Labs as a concept that enabled ordinary people to make extraordinary things. There is an element of that but now that I have learned more though I think that my emphasis was wrong. It is the people that are special in this process, not the machines.

I now prefer to characterise Fab Labs as enabling extraordinary people to make ordinary things. It is potentially the democratisation of production and the physical manifestation of freeware … and there’s nothing wrong with that. Beam me up Scotty!


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