By Debbie Gregory.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Navy recently agreed to locate a fabrication laboratory, or Fab Lab, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center (MARMC) in Norfolk, VA.
Fab Labs are design and fabrication shops outfitted with modern digital tools and equipment—such as laser cutters, routers, 3D printers, vinyl cutters for flexible circuit boards and digital design tools that use open-source software.
East-coast sailors will be better equipped to keep ships running by using this cutting-edge technology to manufacture high-demand, low-supply parts on the spot. This will reduce logistics supply chain costs and boost defense readiness by improving training and tools for operating, maintaining and adapting complex military equipment in low-tech environments or at sea.
As the “Fab Lab” starts up, officials will initially focus on the roughly 750 sailors assigned to MARMC, and will host workshops that teach use of various modeling tools, molding machines and millwork.
Workshops will help sailors turn their ideas into a digital design, then use the tools on-hand to build prototypes that can be put to the test. Sailors will have the help of on-site engineers, who will add feedback and validate the concepts.
Some machine shops and fabrication capabilities exist aboard ships and in deployed areas, but these facilities provide only a fraction of the components needed for deployed operations—largely due to limited access to the adaptive manufacturing technology and comprehensive design expertise needed for in-theater fabrication.
DARPA is establishing the Navy’s customized Fab Lab through the Fab Foundation, a non-profit organization that oversees the international Fab Lab Network. The Fab Labs came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms in 2001. Prototype component designs potentially could be shared digitally across the Navy, and perhaps result in Fab Labs being established in other military locations.