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Gershenfeld Hopes to Spearhead a Fab-ulous Revolution

Neil Gershenfeld
Neil Gershenfeld

In his lab at MIT, Neil Gershenfeld can build almost anything. The lab contains a few high-tech machines that together make it possible for individuals to design and build almost anything they can imagine. People have used the lab to make all kinds of weird gizmos to suit their personalities and needs– from a web browser for parrots to a dress that puffs up when other people approach too closely.

But the “fab lab”, as Gershenfeld calls it, is not just a high-tech tool for making odd gadgets. He has set up similar labs in undeveloped areas around the world, where people with few resources can use the tools to build things they need to substantially improve their lives. Gershenfeld thinks that these fab labs will eventually allow regular people to make exactly what they want or need, rather than buying a mass-produced item at a store, a prospect he believes is as revolutionary as the personal computer.

Gershenfeld has always liked making stuff himself. As a child, he liked to build things and play with all sorts of gadgets. “Growing up I did a lot of tinkering,” he says, “Taking stuff apart, though not necessarily putting it back together again.” For a while he wanted to go to trade school, to learn hands-on skills like welding and auto mechanics, but he ended up following a college-prep program and then going to Swarthmore College.

Even while studying physics, Gershenfeld spent a lot of time in the machine shop at Swarthmore. After obtaining a PhD in applied physics from Cornell, Gershenfeld worked at Bell Labs, where he caused some trouble because he wanted to operate the machines himself, rather than just have the machinists build things for him. He's never liked the idea that machining was supposed to be done only by specialist machine operators. So it isn't surprising that he had the idea for personal fabrication.

The fab (for fabrication, or fabulous, whichever you prefer) labs, which cost about $20,000, contain high-tech tools such as a laser cutter to cut shapes out of a variety of materials, a sign cutter that makes flexible electrical connections and antennas, a milling machine for making circuit boards and precision parts, and tools for programming tiny high speed microcontrollers. With these tools, some basic materials, and a little training and creativity, one really can make almost anything.

Though the fab lab doesn't construct objects subatomic particle-by-subatomic particle, like the “Replicator” on Star Trek, Gershenfeld's research is heading in that direction. In fact, says Gershenfeld, who heads MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, “There's a pretty solid road map to making a Star Trek-style molecular assembler.”

Gershenfeld originally put together the fab lab machines for his own research. His work at the interdisciplinary Center for Bits and Atoms explores how the content of information relates to its physical representation. “We're just starting to see nature as information processing,” he says, and the lab's goal is to “bring together the best features of the bits of new digital worlds with the atoms of the physical world. ” The lab studies everything from atomic nuclei to global networks. Among other things, Gershenfeld's research led to the development of molecular logic used to implement the first complete quantum computation.

After setting up the fab lab machines, Gershenfeld found himself spending a lot of time teaching others to use them, so he decided to offer a course, which he called “How to Build (Almost) Anything.” He expected to have a few advanced engineering students sign up. Instead, he was overwhelmed by about a hundred students, many with relatively non-technical backgrounds, clamoring to enroll.

They all had ideas for things they wanted to make. Many of them were quirky. For instance, one student made a “defensible dress” that was inspired by the porcupine's and blowfish's methods of defending their space by puffing up. Sensors in the dress detect when someone else gets too close to the wearer, and stiff wires then cause the dress to billow out, defending the wearer's personal space.

Another student, an artist with little electronics background, made a portable sack for screaming. When someone yells into the sack, the scream is silenced, so people nearby can't hear it, but it is also recorded, so the screamer can play it back at a more appropriate time.

Other fab lab students have made weird items such as an alarm clock that forces you to play a game to prove you're awake, and a web browser for parrots. “It's not about making things you need, but making things you want,” says Gershenfeld about these rather eccentric projects. Personal Fabrication, as Gershenfeld calls it, is about making things for a “market of one.” He envisions that someday soon the cost of a fab lab will come down, and people will use them routinely to build their own things, rather than just buy things that are available at Wal-Mart. Gershenfeld describes this revolutionary new business model in his recent book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.

Gershenfeld realized that the labs could actually be most useful in some of the world's most undeveloped and impoverished places. Fab labs are now running in South Boston, Ghana, Costa Rica, India, Norway, and one is being built in South Africa. “They have exploded around the world. We're drowning in demand. Everywhere we go, we're inundated with people with compelling problems they're desperate to solve,” says Gershenfeld. These places are very different from each other, and the people have unique problems, but Gershenfeld found that, in some ways, the people were remarkably similar. “The community figures we work with are all the same. They're not technical, but they have this tremendous sense of opportunity for technology. The ways people work seem to span across very different cultural backgrounds,” says Gershenfeld.

In India, fab lab users made electronic monitoring devices to test milk for freshness and contamination. In northern Norway, a group of shepherds made a wireless radio network to track sheep. In the fab lab in Ghana, people are developing inexpensive ways to harness the abundant solar power, and are working on a machine to process cassava, a staple food in the region.

Children are often the most enthusiastic users of the fab labs, says Gershenfeld, who often brings his own kids, eight year-old twins Grace and Eli, to the lab at MIT. They've produced furniture for their teddy bears and dolls and a cardboard construction set they say is more fun than Legos. Now, when they want something–a new toy, perhaps–they always say, “Let's go to MIT,” rather than dragging their dad to a toy store to buy something that someone else designed. These youngsters seem to have absorbed the idea of making things themselves, evidence that Gershenfeld's vision of personal manufacturing is already taking hold.
–Courtesy of Physics Central: www.physicscentral.com