Short for "fabrication laboratory", a fab lab is an automated manufacturing appliance that produces solid objects using raw materials (shredded plastic, silicon, wood chips, etc.) and computer instructions. Best thought of as a 3D printer, a fab lab could one day take the power of fabrication out of the manufacturing industry and put it into the hands of businesses and eventually consumers. Since the cost of raw materials would be negligible, a fab lab could drop the cost of manufacturing to the cost of power and the design only.
In late 2004, the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms created a fab lab consisting of three Linux PCs, a laser cutter, a combination 3-D scanner and drill, a numerically controlled X-Acto knife, and a handful of RISC chips. It has successfully fabricated not only simple plastic products such as eyeglass frames and action figures, but also electronics such as small radios and computers. Funded by Degussa AG, a large German manufacturing and construction company, Behrokh Khoshnevis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering has spent 2003 onward developing a system intended to construct a full-size, 2,000 square-foot house with utilities embedded, all in under 24 hours.
In the near future, fab labs might be used to eliminate costly assembly lines and produce cheap products of consistently high quality. Mass produced fab labs could be distributed in developing countries to leapfrog centralized industral infrastructures and enable localized consumer markets. File-sharing communities, much like those that exist today for music and movies, could emerge surrounding the demand for free fabrication designs. This could prompt numerous legal battles and a change in the way we look at intellectual property and patent law.
One day, it might become possible to create a fab lab so flexible that it can manufacture any conceivable product under a certain size, including other fab labs. Hypothetical fab labs that build products from the atoms up, using molecular scale machinery, have been called nanofactories. When the cost of a fab lab drops low enough that they are affordable to the typical consumer remains unknown, but when that time comes, it is certain that the world system will change significantly.