Armed with precision lasers, routers, microprocessors and a tangle-some array of wires, students scrambled last week to finish cheeky robots that mix cocktails, shoot dirt, draw faces and more at Century College's Fabrication Lab, one of just 28 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) manufacturing labs around the globe.¶ The "Fab Lab" in White Bear Lake and its far-flung cousins stand at the forefront of a movement that MIT started seven years ago with a $13.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). ¶ With MIT's help, Century College kicked off its lab last year, and recently won a $650,000 NSF grant to expand its engineering curriculum and get more students hooked on high-tech digital manufacturing.

The specialty lab -- run by five technicians/professors and equipped with $90,000 worth of digital and high-precision tools and free engineering software -- is one of just six in the United States. It's designed to put machinery to work in unique ways.

Last week, teams of students hovered over their projects like protective parents against a backdrop of earlier efforts: a windmill, an electric car, micro power generators and a new air hockey game outfitted with lasers, motion sensors and fans.

Peering over the shoulders of his 16- to 30-year-old students, engineering Prof. Tim Grebner said they can "program autonomous machines to do whatever you want. We're trying to promote creativity and problem-solving."

The program started with an NSF grant to MIT in 2000 that required community outreach.

"We said we are not good at that. But we are good at fabrication. So why don't we send little labs out into the world and see what will happen when you have the ability to make anything?" said Sherry Lassiter, program manager for the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

The original lab in Boston was replicated in Costa Rica, then in India, Norway and Ghana. South Africa now has six and Kenya has two labs.

Century College opened its lab last year, along with labs in Wisconsin and Ohio. This year, labs will launch in Chicago and San Diego. Last week Lassiter shipped fab lab components to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

The labs are part of MIT's Global Innovation Network, which requires that they share their research, programming codes and instructions for all inventions. That means fab labs are inherently continuous learning centers, said Scott Simenson, Century's Digital Fab Lab director.

That was all blah-blah-blah to students trying to finish machines in time to present them for contest judges. Sam Legan, 21, and Jeremy Paulson, 18, rushed to the lab to solder battery connections on their blue bartending robot.

To build this and other unique prototypes, MIT or individual schools typically outfit each lab with $60,000 worth of off-the-shelf equipment, such as high-precision three-dimensional laser cutters, drill presses, injection molders, etchers, vinyl cutters and desktop wood routers. Century College recently invested $30,000 on a rapid prototype machine.

The digital labs foster innovation while teaching students to use computerized fabrication and engineering techniques, Simenson said.

Grebner pointed to a large glass case filled with intricate gears, gadgets, chess pieces and other plastic castings that students had made in just minutes. The prototyper, usually found in large industrial research and development departments, converts computerized sketches into three-dimensional parts.

The machine's speed and exacting measurements help students see flaws and possibilities quickly, saving material costs.

"The things that come out of this class are just phenomenal," Lassiter said. Students not only innovate products, but also create businesses and find cheap solutions to real-world problems. And sometimes they just use the labs for personal expression, she said.

"We had an [MIT] art student come up with a dress that protected her personal space. It had spines that levitated if you came within 2 feet of her," she said, laughing.

Another student owned a parrot that got lonely, bored and very loud during the day. So he created a Web-based interface system that allowed the bird to press buttons and communicate with other parrots around the country.

Many fab labs create solutions to real-world problems. One Century College student struggled recently with the software code for a programmable miniature crane that could one day automate lifting water buckets for poor villagers in other countries.

Norwegian students have been perfecting an antenna signal-booster made of chicken wire. Students in Greece worked on a $2, flexible five-mile antenna. And South African students developed cheap software that converts a television into a computer monitor with Internet access.

As a group, these students are building the components for a $20 homemade computer. Their work could bring the Internet to poor villages around the globe within six months, Lassiter said.

Century College sophomore Mike Hanzlik, who recently earned an internship at Oak River Technologies, said fab labs might help recruit students to technical careers.

"The fab lab kind of symbolizes the era of customized manufacturing, where customers want and can get things quickly individualized for their needs," Hanzlik said.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725