Desktop Factories


The Coming Revolution

on Your Desktop --

from Personal Computers

to Personal Fabrication

By Neil Gershenfeld

Basic Books; 278pp; $26

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good An accessible and engrossing account of amazing developments in low-cost custom manufacturing.

The Bad Could have used more detail about how some previously nonexistent products were created.

The Bottom Line Should be required reading for anyone working on global poverty or frustrated inventors.

In Neil Gershenfeld's superb Fab, the one-word title refers to fabrication. The book heralds a shift in manufacturing as profound as the advent of personal computers, hence the subtitle: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop -- from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.

Personal fabrication systems are small, inexpensive clusters of tools and software that function as complete job shops. Typically, they have easy-to-use controls that enable almost anyone, including people in remote African villages, to manufacture an amazing variety of things. A typical system includes a milling machine for making precision parts, a cutter for producing simple printed circuit boards, and software for programming cheap chips called microcontrollers. 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.

Gershenfeld's account of the technology's evolution is delicious. A star physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a knack for technical explanation, he has written an accessible book that even nontechnophiles will love. In fact, Fab should be required reading for foreign-service officers, managers in humanitarian agencies, and others working to alleviate poverty.

Starting in 2002, Gershenfeld began tapping the National Science Foundation for funds to deploy fab labs at remote locations in places such as Ghana, India, and Arctic Norway. In Norway's far north, where the native Sami keep flocks of sheep and reindeer, herder Haakon Karlsen makes little radio tags and wireless radio-relay stations so the Sami can track their animals' movements. In Pabal, a farming village in western India, a school is fab-labbing devices that will tune tractor engines to run on fuel squeezed from locally grown castor beans, since farmers can't afford diesel. And engineers at Takoradi Technical Institute are working on a solar-energy project that will bring electricity to villages in Ghana.

The idea for fab labs was sparked by a course called "How to Make (almost) Anything" at MIT's Center for Bits & Atoms (CBA), which Gershenfeld heads. He saw the class as a how-to exercise for engineering students. They would get to experiment with CBA's multimillion-dollar cluster of machinery and tools -- the granddad fab lab. The first class convened in 1998, and Gershenfeld was astonished when "100 or so students showed up for a class that could hold only 10. They weren't the ones we expected, either," he writes. They included as many aspiring artists and architects as engineers.

Another surprise came when he discovered why most students wanted to take the course: "They were motivated by the desire to make things they'd always wanted but that didn't exist." And, he adds, "they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems."

For the next generation of fab labs, Gershenfeld hopes to include a piece of equipment known as a rapid prototyping machine -- a device that is already becoming common in industry. Some are basically ink-jet printers that create three-dimensional "images" from computer models, laying down layer upon layer of plastic, powdered metal, or other materials. Overnight they can create the shell of a cellular phone. Eventually, by combining plastics and metal circuitry, they're expected to deliver a working cell phone -- or pretty much any other gadget.

The concept isn't limited to small consumer products, though. The author reports that efforts are 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.

Soon, Gershenfeld plans to offer fab labs that can reproduce themselves again and again, creating waves of successively cheaper systems. For toppers, 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.

Personal fabrication will give new meaning to thinking outside the box -- by giving people boxes that can turn dreams into reality.

By Otis Port

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