We previously introduced you to Fab, the book on personal fabrication by Neil Gershenfeld. The following is a longer review by your editor, which will soon appear in a national publication.
Manufacturing may never be the same again. Imagine a shepherd in Norway manufacturing radio tracking devices for his flock, farmers in a remote part of India manufacturing specialized electromechanical tuning devices for their tractors, or even actor Alan Alda designing and building an accessory for his camera. Science fiction? Actually those examples are happening today, with other “fabrication labs” in operation around the world in places like Ghana, Costa Rica, and Boston.
Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT’s Center for Bit and Atoms, explains this fantastic-sounding frontier of technology in Fab. What if you could someday put the manufacturing power of an automobile plant on your desktop? Such a “personal fabricator” may sound far-fetched, but thirty years ago, the notion of “personal computers” in every home sounded far-fetched. Give people personal computers and they can write their own software. Give them devices called personal fabricators and they can make their own things.
The idea for fab labs was sparked by a course called "How to Make (almost) Anything" at MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms. Gershenfeld saw the class as a how-to exercise for engineering students where hey would get to experiment with Center’s cluster of machinery and tools. The first class was held in 1998, and over 100 students showed up for a class that could hold only 10. Even more surprising was the fact that the class list including a wide variety of non-engineering majors, from architects to even aspiring artists. "They were motivated by the desire to make things they’d always wanted but that didn’t exist." By the end of the class "they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems” using the laser cutters, water-jet cutters, numerically controlled milling machines and other CAD-CAM tools. Manufacturing companies use this equipment to make prototypes of items they intend to manufacture. In Gershenfeld’s fab labs, the prototype is the product. Each is designed for a customer base of one.
Starting in 2002, Gershenfeld began tapping the National Science Foundation for funds to deploy fab labs around the world. In addition to the examples mentioned earlier, engineers at Takoradi Technical Institute are working on a solar-energy project that will bring electricity to villages in Ghana. Using the machines in one of these labs, children in inner-city Boston have made saleable jewelry from scrap material. Villagers in India used their lab to develop devices for monitoring food safety and inexpensive electronic gauges farmers can use to measure the quality of their crops. And students at MIT have made everything from a defensive dress that protects its wearer to an alarm clock that requires an exercise in mental clarity before it can be shut off.
Gershenfeld believes that fabrication tools are developing along a path very similar to the one taken by computers. Computers were once large, expensive, complicated machines accessible only to a chosen few. Now they have evolved to the point that almost everyone can make use of them to some degree. Machine tools are still at a relatively early stage of evolution but that is changing rapidly. What happens when such machines, or even future versions which can manipulate atoms and molecules, are as accessible as computers are today? Personal fabricators are about to revolutionize the world just as personal computers did a generation ago. Today, one of these fab labs costs about $20,000 but Gershenfeld predicts that fab lab prices will follow the path of PCs. With volume production, these advanced do-it-yourself systems could plunge to $10,000 and then perhaps to $1,000.
This will mark a return to the days before "art became separated from artisans and mass manufacturing turned individuals from creators to consumers." Gershenfeld further notes, "With a personal fabricator, instead of shopping for and ordering a product, you could download or develop its description, supplying the fabricator with designs and raw materials." A fab lab in every home could have a dramatic effect on today’s throwaway culture. When a homemade appliance or toy breaks, the fab would know how to disassemble it and either rebuild it or recycle the materials. It could even open the door to being able to email an actual product, with the recipient’s personal fab creating the physical product.
The concept isn’t limited to small consumer products. Gershenfeld describes efforts under way to develop large, mobile printers that squirt concrete for "printing" a building or bridge. Larry Sass, an MIT professor of architecture, is developing a fab-lab system for constructing simple but customized houses from a truckload of plywood panels costing roughly $2,000. Gershenfeld even has plans to offer fab labs that can reproduce themselves again and again.
Gershenfeld offers some concluding thoughts on potential ethical issues with fabs. What would happen if the ability to make almost anything fell into the wrong hands? What is the implication for humanity with machines that can replicate themselves? The author responds to such fears with examples of how new and potentially destructive technology is eventually matched with a limiting technology, and how countermeasures generally coevolve with dangerous technologies.
If personal fabrication technology really follows the path of the personal computer, manufacturing as we know it is in for a radical paradigm change. Mass customization for a customer of one… in some respects this is an ultimate form of lean manufacturing. Only a few generations ago sending spacecraft to space and landing on the moon were laughable concepts too… until they happened.