Jordan is about to get its first set of Fab Labs, community makerspaces which offer everyone the chance to use hi-tech manufacturing tools to create pretty much anything.
By Laith Abou-Ragheb
What if anyone with a great idea for a new product could quickly whip up a working prototype by themselves for next to nothing in a matter of hours? What could this democratization of manufacturing know-how mean for an economy like Jordan’s?
About a decade ago, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Neil Gershenfeld began opening a series of fabrication laboratories to the general public. These Fab Labs, as they became known, were crammed with cutting edge manufacturing equipment like 3D printers, computer-controlled milling machines, and laser cutters.
For the first time, these advanced, industrial-grade tools were brought together under one roof in the hope of sparking creativity and entrepreneurship amongst local communities. Gershenfeld’s groundbreaking idea has since grown into a global outreach network of hundreds of Fab Labs which are overseen by the Boston-based Fab Foundation.
Jordan is now slated to get its first two Fab Labs in August. One will open in Irbid, with the JD4 million set-up cost of the 800-square-meter complex being met through an EU grant to support startups and SMEs. While the other JD700,000 575-square-meter Fab Lab will begin operating in Amman’s King Hussein Business Park. This is being funded by the Crown Prince Foundation, NextFab, the US-based makerspace, and 3Dmena, a Jordanian hardware incubator.
The daily operations of both Fab Labs will be overseen by 3Dmena, which was set up by Loay Malahmeh in 2014. The Oasis500-company began life as a simple 3D printing marketplace, but soon switched focus to raising awareness of the positive impact digital manufacturing technology could have on society. The USAID-funded 3Dmena Academy has already trained hundreds of people in advanced manufacturing and design, while Malahmeh teamed up with Dave Levin to found Refugee Open Ware, a non-profit that aims to use digital manufacturing methods to improve the lives of both refugees and host communities in conflict-affected areas.
Malahmeh described Open Ware as a Google X for the humanitarian sector, referencing the tech giant’s research and development arm. “I wanted to show people what could be done with this technology,” he explained. “It’s good that you can print cookie cutters and key rings. But it’s not just for that.” Indeed, while we might not be seeing Star Trek-style replicators in our homes anytime soon, the possibilities thrown up by digital fabrication are undoubtedly exciting. “Real personal fabricators are still many years off, but Fab Labs today emulate what they will eventually be able to do,” Gershenfeld said in an interview with MIT News earlier this year.
3Dmena’s chaotic office-cum-workshop, tucked away deep within the King Hussein Business Park, is a true inventor’s playground. Strewn across table tops are banks of expensive-looking 3D printers, soldiering irons, and many, many meters of electrical cable. On one surface sits a large Tupperware-like container that’s somehow been modified to become an automated, climate-controlled greenhouse. “You can grow anything inside it,” Malahmeh said. “Imagine the impact of putting it in a refugee camp or places where you can’t grow any food basics.”
Malahmeh is a passionate advocate of the Fab Foundation’s work, and is excited to be part of the team that’s helped bring the concept to Jordan. He believes giving everyday Jordanians access to new manufacturing technology, particularly 3D printing, has the potential to unlock a great deal of creative talent that could help boost the country’s economy down the line.
The management consultancy McKinsey estimates 3D printing alone could have a global economic impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025 in terms of better products, improved health, and lower prices. Furthermore, according to WANTED Analytics, a global recruitment consultancy, the number of job advertisements asking for workers with 3D printing skills jumped over 100 percent between August 2013 and August 2014.
3D printers can be used to manufacture everything from airliner cabin components to the $75 prosthetic hand 3Dmena made for a six-year-old Yemeni boy who was badly injured in a fire. What’s more, just in terms of being able to make functioning prototypes to present to potential manufacturers, the potential for 3D printers to keep costs down is huge. “I’ve had people coming to me who literally spent tens of thousands of dollars on creating a simple product,” Malahmeh said.
Most people wanting to use the Fab Labs in Irbid and Amman will have to pay a membership fee. But once signed up, Malahmeh said his team will provide comprehensive support and advice. “We’re basically enabling the creation of hardware products by providing the infrastructure in terms of equipment, training to use the equipment, and we help grow and monetize what you created.”
So who are Fab Labs aimed at? Pretty much anyone. They could be individuals who wish to see their idea or concepts become a reality, or simply just to make things they’d like to make. Inventors, entrepreneurs, and startups could sign-up to a Fab Lab to test or market their ideas with tangible working prototypes. Teachers and students working on design competitions or educational workshops in universities or schools might also be interested.
Malahmeh hopes the introduction of Fab Labs to Jordan will help counter a general wariness of new technology held by some officials who hold the knee-jerk attitude of “if you don’t understand it, let’s forbid it.” For example, even though relatively affordable table-top 3D printers have been available for several years, Malahmeh said the Ministry of Interior only recently got around to issuing guidelines for importing them. And even then it remains a lengthy process to get hold of one.
But even so, Malahmeh remains confident Jordan’s Fab Labs will quickly prove their worth, as they represent a sector that could potentially revolutionize manufacturing as we know it. Jordan simply can’t afford to miss out. “It’s a train and we need to jump on it before it’s too late,” he said.