Tulsa’s “Fab” Fab Lab

by Ray Pearcey


Photo: The Tulsa Fab Lab Team. From left to right; front row seated: Anne Pollard, Diama Norris; back row: Micah Kordsmeier, Josh Moseby, Trinna Burrows, Matt Norris, Dan Moran; not pictured: Lori Timmons, Dr. Robert Strattan.

Ever watch Next Generation’s Captain Picard zap up a fresh meal or magically fashion a pair of new shoes– out of nowhere–using a mysterious device called a replicator? Take Tulsa’s Kendall Whittier neighborhood association, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Tulsa/Tulsa Engineering Foundation, put all three of these very different organizations in a box — shake briskly and you might just get a glimpse of an early-stage replicator machine.

This three-way matrix is about to birth Tulsa’s first public Fab Lab. The phrase is shorthand for “fabrication laboratory.” Fab Labs are a highly visible, ground-level science movement that could return product development to an earlier, craft-centered, neo-artisan production style; paradoxically the new shops would marry a seemingly old-school regime to leading edge digital design and precision-controlled, computer fabrication methods. The Fabs, according too MIT project planners, could dramatically widen the range of small ventures that can produce complex products. Recently an automotive company in Wareham, Massachusetts committed to FabLab practices; carmaker Local Motors will rely substantially on micro-production systems when it opens later this year.

The search for new avenues for improving Tulsa’s competitive posture is always in need of added tools—hitching a ride on the Fab Labs movement, some planners believe, might be a leapfrog jobs and company growth strategy for Tulsa. And there appears to be a high level of local interest in Tulsa’s new Fab Lab project. Dr. Bruce Niemi, a Tulsa-based professional educator and a development /industrial training planner, sees Tulsa Fab Lab as a portal for a more agile, re-animated manufacturing economy in the area. Niemi also thinks that Fab Lab and related projects could also give non-college bound kids high-wage opportunities and the kind of social mobility not seen since the 1950’s.

Oddly the new path is also empowering kids and providing a vivid link for them to the tangible world; a Chicago area paper writes that an area educator wants to use a new Fab in Urbana to help girls make jewelry. Betty Barrett, who teaches at the University of Illinois/Urbana campus, says she would like to use the Lab’s new equipment to help kids make everyday objects.

“When I was a girl, girls couldn’t take shop or auto mechanics or cool things,” says Barrett. “We had to take sewing and home economics…the Fab Lab appeals to me as a place where kids have an outlet to explore.”

The raft of technologies, design software and fabrication tools at the core of the Fab Lab concept have been around for several years: the vanguard includes Hollywood set designers, medical professionals, architects and aerospace engineers—they call these desktop manufacturing technologies rapid prototyping. The costs of doing rapid prototyping–even for small projects—has (until very recently) been large. Happily a concatenation of rapidly declining costs in computing power, design software and exotic fabricating tools have made initiatives like Fab Lab feasible. The whole Fab Lab/micro-factory concept is still at a very early stage, however. There are fewer than fifty on the planet.

Fab Labs also operate as a sort of micro factory: an eclectic cross between an engineering production space, an electromechanical workbench on steroids, an exotic laser/plasma-shaping facility, and a state-of-the-art digital design studio. The new Tulsa project could be a sentinel for what Wired Magazine recently called an industrial renaissance–and a vastly different trajectory for U.S. manufacturing.

There’s another benefit, too. It seems that affordable, kid-friendly solutions are touchstones for the whole Fab Lab effort –an effort crafted by MIT’s Center for Atoms and Bits and funded by the National Science Foundation. Some of the leadership people in the Fab Lab movement clearly want to fully engage modest income people and avoid excluding big chunks of the Country—repeating the preverse early history of personal computers, the Internet and broadband technologies.

“Giving kids access to Tulsa Fab Lab and assuring that almost anyone who wants to explore the new shop gets to do so –these are cardinal objectives for Kendall Whittier Inc., our board and our MIT partners—it is central to what we are trying to do, ” says Trinna Burrows, who is executive director of Kendall Whittier.

The Tulsa Fab Lab opening is tentatively slated for sometime late this year.