On March 20, Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced The National Fab Lab Network Act of 2013 (H.R. 1289), which would create a federal charter for a non-profit organization called “The National Fab Lab Network” (NFLN). NFLN would act as a public-private partnership whose purpose is to facilitate the creation of a national network of fab labs and serve as a resource to assist stakeholders with their effective operation. The network would be comprised of local digital fabrication facilities providing community access to advanced manufacturing tools for learning skills, developing inventions, creating businesses, and producing personalized products. The labs would represent workshops equipped with computer-controlled machine tools and “3-D printing” additive manufacturing devices which would allow children, students, or hobbyists to build virtually anything.
The NFLN would serve as a first point of contact for communities and organizations seeking to create fab labs; link funders and sites with operational entities that can source and install fab labs; support workforce training and job creation programs; and conduct research assessing the impact of the fab labs. The NFLN would operate at no cost to taxpayers, and would be chartered to accept funds from private individuals, corporations, government agencies, or other organizations. The fab labs would be poised to play an important role in encouraging students to become more active in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and ultimately contribute to a well-trained workforce for advanced manufacturing in the United States.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the first lab, The Center for Bits and Atoms, and it provides a strong model for a new kind of national laboratory that can link local facilities for advanced manufacturing. CBA’s fab lab has given rise to the so-called “maker movement,” which involves individuals designing and often manufacturing their own prototypes, inventions, tools, or other products using a variety of methods, including traditional manufacturing tools and more advanced technologies such as 3-D printers. “Makers” are increasingly becoming entrepreneurs, leading the development of industrial robots, 3-D printers, and other smart devices that integrate hardware, software, sensors, and Internet connectivity. Just as earlier digital revolutions in communications and computation empowered individuals with the Internet and personal computers, this digital revolution in fabrication will allow anyone to make almost anything, anywhere. The National Fab Lab Network Act is poised to play an important role in stimulating such manufacturing innovation, particularly by providing entrepreneurs access to tools with which they can design and manufacture products and even launch new businesses.
As ITIF writes in Fifty Ways to Leave Your Competitiveness Woes Behind: A National Traded Sector Competitiveness Strategy, there are several additional steps policymakers should take to foster the maker movement in addition to supporting Congressman Foster’s Fab Lab bill. For instance, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is investing heavily in the tools needed to democratize design and manufacturing. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has encouraged all agencies to provide R&D funding for entrepreneurs with good ideas for low-cost instruments and kits for makers and citizen-scientists. In fact, OSTP has reached out to Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program managers about announcing solicitations supporting “development of a set of affordable tools, equipment and kits that will allow students to (1) engage in citizen science; and (2) design and build manufactured products.” These tools have the ability to create opportunities for entrepreneurship in manufacturing, in the same way that the Web and cloud computing have made it less expensive for software entrepreneurs to launch a new business. To encourage maker innovation, the Administration should call on federal agencies to allocate a very small share of SBIR awards to fund maker projects related to agency needs. These awards could be much smaller than traditional SBIR awards, perhaps on the order of $20,000.