Call it a factory on your desktop. Call it a Fab Lab.
Neil Gershenfeld says the day is coming when we can design and produce our own products at home with a device called a personal fabricator. Simply download the description of say, a toaster, feed the design and materials into this machine that makes machines, push a button, and out comes the toaster.
Gershenfeld hopes to bring high-tech manufacturing to the masses and says it will soon be possible for us to create any object we desire — from a toy to a gadget to even another personal fabricator. He says that personal fabricators are about to revolutionize the world just as personal computers did a generation ago. He predicts that soon in every home we will have a personal fabricator on our desktops, along with a computer and printer.
Gershenfeld is director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), a cross-campus program that is working to merge the digital world with the physical world. On this day, he is talking about how he was wholly surprised the day it all began.
CREATE NOT CONSUME
“My colleagues and I began a course –– How to Make Almost Anything –– and something unexpected happened. We had room for 10 people and 100 showed up, begging, pleading, ‘All my life I’ve been waiting for this class. I’ll do anything to get in.’ It was just a response unlike any I’ve ever seen.
“Students weren’t there to do basic research. They weren’t there to start a business. They were there because they wanted to make something.”
Now Gershenfeld knows why. “In the developed world,” he says, “we are assaulted with technology. People are trying to sell anything to anyone. We’re adrift in a sea of intrusive technology, and it can be oppressive to live with this technological clutter.
“But if you can create rather than consume technology, it touches something deep inside us. People are creative, and in this class, I stumbled across just how passionate people become when they can control their own technological futures.”
Interest in the project has spread. “Every day, I get email messages from people across the world, saying, “I must have a Fab Lab,” or even, “All my life I’ve been waiting for you and this project. I’m devoting my life to it, where should I report?”
Now, there are Fab Labs not only in Boston’s inner-city (at Mel King’s South End Technology Center), but in rural India, coastal Ghana, the far north of Norway, Costa Rica, and South Africa. The labs are empowering people in developing countries, who may lack the education and resources to implement their ideas, by giving them the ability to design and create tools they need to solve local problems.
In Arctic Norway, sheep and reindeer herders are using Fab Labs to develop radio collars and wireless networks to track their animals’ movements. In Pabal, a village in India, a dairy farmer’s income depends on the fat content of the cow’s milk. Local students are now using a Fab Lab to build a sensor to give the farmers an exact measure of the fat content. And in Takoradi, Ghana, engineers are working on a solar-energy project to bring power to the villages.
Now the Fab Lab is the size of a small room, but it will get smaller, faster, and cheaper. It now costs about $30,000, but Gershenfeld says that just as million-dollar mainframes became affordable PCs, the systems will drop to $10,000, then to $1,000.
Interest is exploding. “I’ve been spending time with heads of state and generals, ministers, senators, and tribal chiefs who all want to discuss Fab Labs, and I’m swamped with demand in every part of the world,” he says, adding, he recently wrote FAB, a book he hopes will help describe the tools and projects so people can create Fab Labs on their own — without him.
The project, he says, is growing beyond the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) and beyond MIT. His colleague Sherry Lassiter, the CBA Program Manager who ran MIT’s Fab Lab network, is now a hands-on instructor in the field. And lead students on the project –– Amy Sun, Manu Prakash, and Amon Millner –– share Gershenfeld’s passion for making possible the appropriate use of advanced technology beyond MIT.
Because they’re swamped with volunteers and requests, they’re scaling the Fab Lab program beyond the original participants. Among the challenges, he says, is figuring out how to fund work that is neither traditional research in a lab nor traditional aid in the field. To help, MIT is now entering into research partnerships with institutions and governments; a Fab Foundation is being launched to coordinate the growing global network; and a Fab Fund has been launched to invest in small-scale, high-tech Fab Lab businesses.
Gershenfeld won’t say how far off the day is when your computer and printer will sit on your desk beside your personal fabricator, but he does say: “It’s going to be an invisible, seamless transition. It’s already happening. What most of the world didn’t appreciate, including me, is just how accessible it is.”