Step into Cook Inlet Tribal Council's (CITC) former transportation garage in East Anchorage, and you'll see a sight unlike anywhere else in Alaska. Outfitted with rows of computers and machines -- from laser cutters, computer-controlled routers and sewing machines to 3D printers and sandblasters, the room is something you might expect in a James Bond movie. In an afternoon, an individual can turn a sheet of plywood into a chair, build an entire computer (including the circuit board), or even make chainmail. The possibilities are only limited by one's imagination. Which is exactly the point.
Neil Gershenfeld, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms, has pioneered a revolution in Fabrication Labs, or FabLabs, as they are commonly referred to. His vision is to empower people to think broadly, to imagine things that don't yet exist and make them tangible objects. "We are turning data into things, and things into data," he said during a recent tour of CITC's FabLab.
Two weeks ago, the CITC garage was empty. Today, with help from Gershenfeld and his MIT team, the FabLab is already producing things. The capital project was funded with about $150,000 in grants, and it will take an estimated $100,000 to keep the lights on, according to Kristin English, CITC's chief operating officer.
On hand for a tour of the facility was venture capitalist Allen Johnston. His excitement about FabLab was palpable. "Alaska has a rich history of innovation, but over the last two years I have seen more exciting ideas coming out of Anchorage than in recent memory," he said. "Money is just a tool, in itself not sustainable. With something like the FabLab, we will see more smart, motivated people becoming empowered. That is sustainable."
Over the coming months, CITC will finish the FabLab setup and start hosting high school educational programs. Later in summer, the lab will open its doors to companies and individuals, turning ideas into physical forms.
Contact Loren Holmes at loren(at)alaskadispatch.com