Ultimately, Gershenfeld envisions not a roomful of equipment, but a single machine that might sit on your desktop and be able to "print" complex objects in 3D. But this is far down the road and far removed from our concerns here . . .....
One of the frequent complaints about reconstruction in Iraq is that the focus is on large-scale, big ticket items that take forever, have an astronomical cost, and have little immediate impact on the daily lives of most Iraqis. This is an area that begs for decentralization. A company-level Fabrication Cell would be well-positioned to repair or create a number of kinds of local infrastructure, whether power generators, wells, irrigation machines, milking devices, incubators, air conditioners, or other such items that help keep the populace happy and on our side, instead of the insurgents'.
I agree with him that these tool sets are cool as hell, and have some interesting applications, but I think the advantage is less evident for the counterinsurgent force. In the same post, he notes that a minimum of training is needed to use these tools properly, and the cost is not prohibitive. The technology is still larger than a size blank that fits into the backseat of a medium size sedan but that is the direction the fab labs are going.
Classic counterinsurgency relies on the counterinsurgent force being able to give the local and contested population a basket of poltiical, public and material goods that the insurgent force(s) have a very difficult time replacing. The insurgent force may be able to disrupt/destroy order, but until the final stages of a Maoist insurgency, it is unable to provide significant and sustained order. The insurgent force may have a limited luxury good smuggling pipeline, but it will be overwhelmed by the multiple truck convoys or airdrops of basic consumer goods that the counterinsurgent force can supply to the local population.
If these fab labs continue to decrease in size and cost, this substitution arbitrage advantage of the counterinsurgent force decreases. We know that the Iraqi insurgencies have the money to spend for their own internal cohesion and societal maintenance as we know that their shooters are getting paid good wages by Iraqi standards, and we know that the insurgencies have tried to take care of their own populations; for example the insurgencies have, in the past, controlled electricity distribution from the Haditha Dam and directed it towards friendly communities.
Buying fab cells are a logical and reasonably cheap step forward, and it is one that I think we'll see reasonably soon.