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August 24, 2015

Needed: New libraries of technological knowledge

Over a century ago, Andrew Carnegie helped usher in the rapid dissemination of knowledge across the United States and the world by funding the construction of over 2500 libraries at an estimated cost of $60 million. His vision held that such libraries were part of the foundations for free and lasting education “where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

Fast forward a century and today’s challenge isn’t about access to information and education. Thanks to mobile technologies, open access education systems like Coursera and Udacity and crowdsourced knowledge containers like Wikipedia, information and access to it has become increasingly freely available.

Today’s economy, however, needs more than just access to information.  As part of ongoing work we’re leading on the future of manufacturing in the Canadian economy, we’ve been speaking to industry leaders in both incumbent firms and in the technology firms that serve them. Among the key themes that emerges relates to the lack of high-skill labour around the use of new technologies, including robotics, 3D printing and other high-end manufacturing equipment. For hardware and advanced manufacturing to flourish in Canada, these skills are no less important than the general education Carnegie wished to see flourish a century ago.

Unfortunately access to a CNC machine or a 3D printer tends to be far less available than to the bookshelves in your neighborhood library. But it doesn’t have to be.

Around the world, FabLabs are emerging as today’s modern technological library. Fab Labs emerged from MIT in 2009 as a means of broadening access to modern manufacturing and technological tools. There are now over 500 official Fab Labs in 70 countries. Several European jurisdictions have publicly funded FabLab manufacturing facilities in high schools and community centres to build a broader, and more technically adept, pipeline of future labour. These centres allow youth to experiment and learn with technical tools and technologies including robotics and 3D printing.

The basic components of any FabLab include:

  • A computer-controlled lasercutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts
  • A larger (4’x8′) numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house-) sized parts
  • A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
  • A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surface-mount circuit boards
  • Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors

Warren and I recently met with Charles Mire, co-founder and CEO of Structur3d.io. The company producers paste-extruding 3D printers and raised over $125,000 to ship 384 of them via a very successful kickstarter campaign. The vast majority of Mire’s customers are very technically adept, and thus represent a rather small percentage of the population. Expanding this pool of users is, like Carnegie’s vision for 20th century, key to building a competitive economy going forward.

Mire touts FabLabs and maker spaces like them as the “new libraries of knowledge” for the 21st century. We certainly agree. Unfortunately such spaces are rare in Canada. Of the 500 odd registered FabLabs only a handful are in Canada, and these are concentrated in Quebec. There are no formal FabLabs in Ontario,  despite the province’s strong advanced manufacturing base and need for related talent. There are however many private and semi-public initiatives, maker spaces and hacker labs for example, that fill part of this need. Toronto’s Tool Library is great example.

While cost is certainly an issue – the average FabLab contains between $50,000 and $100,000 of equipment – a collaborative approach that brings industry and government together to co-fund and co-operate facilities like these is far from unattainable. And while larger urban centres will have an easier time advocating for such facilities, ensuring access to rural and peri-urban areas is potentially more important. The Dutch Frysk-lab model of a mobile FabLab that visits rural areas is a no-brainer that should be adopted in Canada and in Ontario in particular asap.

So while many of us champion free knowledge, it’s time we update how we conceptualize what knowledge we need in order to develop the skills and eventually economic output necessary to ensure a prosperous economy. Developing a network of “new libraries of technological knowledge” should be at the heart of a strategy to do so.


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