Imagine that you're about seven years old.
If you can get into this frame of mind, you'll find the rest of this article copasetic. Part of the way forward for really vibrant communities, if writer/visionaries like Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From ...) and Jonah Lehrer (Imagine) are to be believed, entails encouraging the radically open, change-imbued outlook that we associate with childhood, "hot house" coffee spots, improvisational music gurus and stand up comedic performances.
As it happens, there's a revolution afoot -- and some of its partisans live among us. And while it's easy to be hyperbolic about the epic changes underway in our still new century, the "Maker" disruption has the capacity to transform the American labor market, our ailing industrial economy, and the way we go about designing, constructing and securing lots of our physical stuff. Imagine a place down the street where you can get virtually anything, say under the size of a car, produced on the spot, in accord with your specifications.
If you've ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Picard magically craft a new part for The Enterprise -- items "manifested" by a device that the crew calls a "replicator" -- you have a sense of the power, the potential of this new path.
The cluster of notions, technologies and deconstructed economics that are central to this emerging world is called, by some, "fabber tech."
Like the PC revolution, the striking emergence of the Internet and the quantum jump spawned in the last two years by mobile/tablet devices, this industrial sea change could completely upend the way Americans produce tangible goods. And excitingly, this brash new path could dramatically alter local and national employment patterns, growth and job palettes.
The Tulsa "Maker"
There is a fascinating, new Tulsa project "space" that embodies these wild prospects. The place opened on North Lewis about a year ago. It's formally called the Hardesty Center/Tulsa Fab Lab and is chock-full of a gleaming ensemble of dedicated PCs, handler bots, laser cutters, fabrication machines, lathing systems, shaping devices and a raft of computer aided design applications. All in place and ready with staff to empower adventurous Tulsa area professionals, lay people and kids to craft prototypes and working renditions of furniture, small machines, mechanical parts/systems, circuit boards, architectural models, fashion/jewelry -- even chariots!
Tulsa's micro factory is a well-crafted, tightly managed forerunner -- a small, but great part of an aggressive de-scaling of industrial production, an attempt to "democratize" the creation of things.
The movement hangs with open source computing, do your own systems biology, desktop printing, independent film making, what some call computational photography and urban agriculture -- all efforts to re-work the scale, cost and "accessibility" and even the very nature of a wide swath of economic activities.
Board member Anne Pollard and new director Nathan Pritchett -- one a founding board member and the other the executive director, respectively, of the Tulsa's Fab -- talked to me a few days ago about the upcoming National Fab Lab conference -- wonderfully, an event being hosted in Tulsa next week.
This grand hosting is happening, in no small measure, because of the excellent work that Anne Pollard, Matt Nelson and others have done to turn Tulsa's still brand-new facility into one of the best in the country.
Tulsa's "Fab" is one of over 100, all inspired by a vanguard initiative fashioned by MIT's Center for Atoms & Bits, some years ago. The pre-registered event, called the U.S. Fab Lab Network Luncheon, will be held on April 10-12, including a tone setting lunch at the San Miguel Middle School gymnasium, 2434 East Admiral Blvd., in Tulsa. Dale Dougherty, publisher of Make magazine, will give the keynote address.
So, the future of physical production looks to be something very much akin to what many of us watched during the Star Trek Next-Generation show: replicator-like technologies that allow us to get the things we want, while optimizing use of energy and materials and usefully hacking the giant scale that has defined industrial production. And the new path looks likely to re-scope our existing jungle of producers, intermediaries, distribution networks etc. Small firms and re-imagined co-ops and agile tech/artist/design collectives will be hugely important, powerful parties to this process, but many will have to seek alliances with larger operations that have the technologies required to be a part of this new world -- as it happens, there are a handful of Tulsa private firms that are already front line participants in the Maker world.
Helping to build this wild new business ecology in Tulsa is a big part of the Tulsa project and former business consultant/Tulsa Fab Lab director Nathan Pritchett task. MIT engineering scientist/designer Neil Gershenfeld, an early advocate for the Fab Lab concept, foresees a mid run future filled with hundreds of thousands of neo-artisan/super crafting jobs produced by what he and others call a second industrial revolution.
Sit on it. Local Nate Hood utilizes the space at Fab Lab to design and create these stunning and sturdy chairs which he is now marketing.
Tulsans have already invested over $30 million in tax dollars to an academic "big sister" of Tulsa's Fab: OSU's downtown Helmerich Advanced Research Center, which is emerging as a key regional portal for using/fashioning novel materials, including composites for medical/life science, construction and for aerospace. With these we could witness a big bang of new start companies and rad efforts from existing firms -- a surge that could greatly benefit our manufacturing community and T-town industrial workers.
Already, Pollard and Pritchett have done an agile job of connecting Tulsa's Fab to highly relevant national players like software/digital design giant AutoCAD, and new age machining/fabrication systems ShopBot -- a maker of industrial grade computer mediated routers and other devices -- both firms are supplying assets/consulting for Tulsa's Fab, and will be at the core of this week's national conference. And both firms have a great, permissive relationship with Tulsa Fab that a "new wave" development compact needs to strive.
The next step, already underway, is to hatch a bevy of alliances, showcase efforts and revenue generating collaborations that can keep Tulsa Fab moving and making a bigger dent in the larger Tulsa economy: we should all want that.
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