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DEVELOPMENT REPORT - 'FabLabs' Help Communities Design Their Own Solutions

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This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

Imagine a world without manufacturers. Or at least not as we now think of them. Instead, we as individuals control the technology to design and make most anything we want.

That world exists now in the mind of Neil Gershenfeld. Professor Gershenfeld is a computer scientist and physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He directs the Center for Bits and Atoms at M.I.T.

The center is exploring the relationship between computer science and physical science. The work is receiving financial support from the National Science Foundation.

Neil Gershenfeld wants to help developing countries create technological tools to solve their own problems. He says this is one way to bring the results of the digital revolution to the developing world.

An antenna project at a FabLab in Ghana
An antenna project at a FabLab in Ghana

And many of those solutions might come out of personal fabrication laboratories -- or "FabLabs." So far the center has set up about fifteen of these laboratories around the world.

Each FabLab comes equipped with about twenty thousand dollars' worth of electronics, design tools and computers. The labs are all similar but they are put to use in very different ways.

In Costa Rica, for example, students used a FabLab to develop new educational technologies. They also developed environmental sensing systems for farmers.

In Pabal, India, villagers used a FabLab to improve the design process for diesel engines that are used for many purposes in the community. That was one of their first projects. A FabLab in Takoradi, Ghana, is developing machines powered by the sun for cooking and other uses.

Developing countries are not the only ones with FabLabs. In Norway, farmers used one to design what they call "sheep radios." They wanted a radio frequency identification system to be able to follow a sheep from birth to market.

People have also used FabLabs to test new designs for business ideas.

Sherry Lassiter works at the Center for Bits and Atoms at M.I.T. She says three laboratories recently opened in South Africa.

The hope is that in the future, FabLabs will become economically self-supporting. They might even be able to design new versions of themselves to keep up with demand.

In fact, Professor Gershenfeld imagines a time when personal fabrication laboratories are truly personal -- a FabLab in every home.

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by Jill Moss. For a link to the Center for Bits and Atoms at M.I.T., go to www.unsv.com. I'm Jim Tedder.

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