Neil Gershenfeld has just written a very interesting book, Fab, on the upcoming "personal fabrication" revolution. Basically his definition of a "fab" is a jobshop-in-a-box… including a small variety of interlinked machining and fabricating equipment, with associated software. The beautify of these fabs is that they can be set up almost anywhere, operated by people with little knowledge of manufacturing, and can be inexpensive enough to deploy in large numbers to remote parts of the globe.
The concept was born at MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms, which Gershenfeld runs. After the initial concepts were developed, the National Science Foundation has started supporting his efforts to send fabs to remote locations in Africa, India, and even Europe. One example is a sheep herder in northern Norway who uses a fab to make radio tags and radio relay stations to track his herd. And in Ghana a village is using a fab to implement a solar energy project.
Gershenfeld is looking at including some traditional rapid prototyping equipment, such as stereolithography or stereosintering, into his fabs to further enhance capabilities. And eventually he would like for a fab to be able to replicate itself. Add a little machine intelligence and… haven’t we seen a movie or two about this future?!
As our manufacturing operations become more and more efficient at quick changeover, small lots, and mass customization, we also need to keep any eye on this potentially disruptive technology… were everyone can become their own manufacturer.