Monday, February 21, 2005

a factory of one's own

Rather than buying gadgets, toys and clothes ready-made, consumers may one day prefer to download the designs and make them at home.
By Rana Foroohar
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005)

Feb. 21 issue - Neil Gershenfeld has boundary issues. As a teen, he irked his parents by asking to attend the local trade school rather than the mainstream academy for bright kids like himself. "I was good in science, but I also wanted to learn to make stuff," he says. "I didn't understand why those things had to be separate." At Bell Labs, he ran into trouble with the unions when he tried to use machine tools to fabricate vacuum chambers he needed for his research. So it's no wonder that Gershenfeld, who now runs the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT's Media Lab, is once again trying to bridge the divide between the digital and the physical. As the inventor of the Fab Lab, a $20,000 mini-factory that can fit into a small room, Gershenfeld aims to bring high-tech manufacturing to the masses.

A Fab Lab (short for fabrication laboratory) is essentially a collection of high-tech factory parts, including readily available open-source software programs, computers and manufacturing equipment such as laser cutters and milling devices, which can be directed through a simple-to-use computer. With such a factory, you can design and make almost anything—from plastic toys to circuit boards and solar panels—out of just about any material. As part of a $14 million project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Gershenfeld has deployed Fab Labs in India, Ghana, Norway, Costa Rica and the United States over the last two years. Already, Norwegian herders have built wireless antennas to track their reindeer; kids from inner-city Boston, Massachusetts, have crafted salable jewelry; Indian farmers have made and sold machines to locate groundwater, and West African students have developed solar cooking devices. "Forget about digital communication," says Gershenfeld. "The next big thing is digital, personal fabrication."

The Fab Lab may portend a new kind of manufacturing. "What if we could some day put the manufacturing power of a Ford factory in our own garage?" writes Gershenfeld in his upcoming book, "Fab" (Basic Books). In the future, rather than buying products, we might download their designs and produce them ourselves. The idea that people might be able to make pretty much anything has provoked a range of emotions from excitement, to dismay over potentially busted business models, fear of terrorists' exploiting the equipment and, conversely, hope that Fab Labs could help spread prosperity. "What's clear is that this technology is going to be disruptive," says Michael Jensen, a director at the National Academy of Sciences.

The roots of the Fab Labs are in both high and low technologies. In the digital age, Gershenfeld reasoned, there's no reason computing and manufacturing couldn't be integrated into one process, or even be done by one person. In his work on another project, Gershenfeld came into contact with Vigyan Ashram, a rural Indian development group, which needed a way of obtaining sensors to detect spoiled milk, devices for tuning diesel engines, machines that could help farmers locate groundwater and other gadgets. The problem was that nobody was mass-producing these products, and it cost too much to have them custom built. What the Indians really wanted was personalized fabrication technology.

Gershenfeld and his MIT colleagues kitted out the Ashram with a 3-D milling ma—chine, an industrial tool for making machine parts and a scanner hooked up to a PC. Local engineering students then helped them design circuit boards to be used in groundwater-locating machines, made on-site. The products not only helped the farmers, but have led to a new business. "We've sold more than 60 of these machines, and we're fully booked to carry out groundwater tests in the area for the next six months," says Yogesh Gulkarni, executive director of Vigyan Ashram. In Ghana, students designed a machine to pound cassava and plantain into fufu, a local dish.

Fab Labs aren't without their challenges. For starters, they require experts of some sort to help out, and in many communities such experts simply aren't available. At Vigyan Ashram, for example, work on the milk sensors and diesel-engine timers ground to a halt after the supervising engineer left during the restructuring of another MIT program in India. For these reasons, the most successful projects may be those that don't require complex computer-design work. Size is another problem. Currently, the tools in the Fab Labs can't make anything larger than themselves—more than a square meter or so. Gershenfeld is trying to develop robotic laser cutters that could drive themselves over large surfaces, creating things like big solar panels. Even if Fab Labs aren't likely to have the range of mainstream manufacturers, however, they may give some poor communities a way to start businesses and raise living standards.

The big question now is who will fund the growth. So far, Gershenfeld has been paying for Fab Lab deployment with his NSF grant. Now he's trying to interest governments and organizations like the World Bank, for whom Fab Labs could be an alternative to aid—a sort of manufacturing version of micro-finance organizations like the Grameen Bank, which encourage locals to bootstrap their own businesses.

Meanwhile, Gershenfeld has been preaching personal-fabrication technology to the likes of HP, Sony, Samsung and Microsoft. A few weeks back in Davos, he made predictions of home-based fabricators that would allow consumers to make their own gadgets, toys and clothes. That vision has a few stumbling blocks (how do you get rid of fumes from milling machines and how do you reduce the lab's cost from $20,000 to $2,000?), but it's easy to imagine companies using Fab tools to craft items for just-in-time shipping rather than storing a large inventory. Gershenfeld recently briefed Jeff Bezos, CEO of on this very idea. Fab Labs might one day bring more choice to both the poor and the prosperous.

With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi and George Nayakene in Ghana

the last word: narain karthikeyan

(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005).

Feb. 28 issue - On March 5, 28-year-old Narain Karthikeyan will become the first Indian to compete in Formula One racing when he takes the wheel for Jordan Grand Prix, the F1 team started by Ireland's Eddie Jordan, in Melbourne. It's a huge achievement for Karthikeyan, known as the "fastest Indian on wheels." Born in Chennai, he has been fighting for a place in the biggest competition in motor sports

for nearly a decade. Now, as he starts his engine, his sponsors Tata Group, JK Tyre and Bharat Petroleum Corp.—Indian companies finally entering into the aggressive marketing world of F1 to compete with giants like Shell and Marlboro—are steering themselves into pole position too. NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf spoke to Karthikeyan about his achievements and ambitions, as well as those of his giant country. Excerpts:

OVERDORF: You've been struggling to make it into Formula One for a long time. How does it feel to finally make it?
KARTHIKEYAN: We were all waiting for the right opportunity. I'm really happy to be the first Indian Formula One driver. It means a lot to the motor-sports fraternity.

Aside from cricket, Indian sportsmen don't get much support, yet you've been successful in getting some of India's corporate giants to sponsor you. How did you attract their interest?
Tata is a global company, and Formula One has the right image for them to get brand exposure. Bharat Petroleum has everything to do with cars. It suited their package, so they came onboard. They're also my long-term sponsors. Tata has been supporting me since 1999. Now I need to make it work. First we just need to finish some races—Jordan is not capable of winning yet. Then we'll be looking for more Indian sponsors so we'll have the money to make the car more competitive.

How difficult is it for Indian athletes—aside from cricketers—to break into the big time?
You need to be a standout. If you're pretty good and you're getting results internationally, you'll get some sponsors, like me. But in the beginning it's very, very hard. Cricket has been getting all the support, but slowly that's starting to change. Hockey, tennis and motor sports—these are getting more and more support. You need more international sports persons in these fields. You need some icons like me in Formula One. As this happens, more and more sponsors are going to look at different sports, and more and more kids will take them up.

How popular are motor sports in India?
It's getting there. F1 was the second most-watched sport on TV last year. [Viewership] is pretty high on the satellite channels. Now that's going to go up a lot more because I'm there. There are going to be a lot more Indians watching Formula One. This is a start for motor sports to grow bigger in India.

How do you rate your chances at success?
We have to be realistic. The Jordan car is not the best, for sure. We can't expect to compete with the [Michael] Schumachers of the world. If we finish in the top eight in some race and get the points, that would be great. Even if we finish among the top 14 qualifiers [out of 20 competitors], that would be good. But first we have to bring the car home in every race. In this sport, finishing itself is a big thing. I've been successful in Formula Three and Formula Two and beaten some pretty good drivers when they were competing at that level, so I think I can be very competitive given the right equipment.

Which makes you more nervous, driving on the track or driving on Indian roads?
Driving on Indian roads, by a long way. It's really crazy in some places, though it's getting better. [Foreigners] always ask me, "Which side of the road do you drive on in India—do you have right-hand drive or left-hand drive?" I say, "Whichever side we want." It's pretty dangerous out there.

Formula One has been trying to increase its presence in Asia over the past few years, opening races in Bahrain, Turkey and China. What role can you play in building interest in India?
Formula One at some point needs to grow in more Asian countries, and India is the perfect place. It's going to take government support, and the Indian government should realize that it would be a great thing [to have more Formula One races in India]. It would be great for the image of the country and have a lot of spinoff effects. And China is already ahead of us. Now [that I'm driving] we'll have a lot of viewers in India, a major market with a lot of people.

For Formula One, India has not been exploited yet, so they need to see if they can get something out of it. A lot of Indian companies will be interested in getting global exposure, so there will be a lot of marketing opportunities.

Have you seen a leap in commercial offers?
I am getting some offers, but I need to choose the right ones. So far I've only done ads for my sponsors.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

airlines: brand india is taking off

The $375 million Jet IPO last week is just the latest sign that gloom has given way to euphoria in the Mumbai stock market.
By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005)

Feb. 28 issue - The same day that "The Aviator" opened in theaters across India, homegrown flying entrepreneur Naresh Goyal debuted Jet Airways, India's first private air carrier, to rave reviews on the Bombay Exchange. In one of the first high-profile signs that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's moves to deregulate India's aviation industry are beginning to excite investors, the initial public offering of 1.7 million shares sold out within minutes last Friday, raising at least $375 million.

The successful IPO comes as Brand India is taking off. In the first 17 days of February alone, foreign fund managers invested $1.5 billion, and market watchers expect the 2005 total to reach $12 billion, up from $8.4 billion last year and $6.7 billion in 2003. Now, with three billion-dollar IPOs last year and nearly 10 companies with market values in excess of $10 billion, the gloom that once shrouded the Indian market has turned into euphoria, inspired by Singh's reforms. Late last year, for example, his administration succeeded in raising the cap on foreign investment in the aviation sector to 49 percent from 40 percent, and allowed domestic carriers to begin flying abroad. No airline is better positioned than Jet to exploit these opportunities.

When India began opening the skies to competition 12 years ago, Jet became the nation's first private carrier. It is now the leading domestic airline, with a market share of 43 percent. Consumers regularly vote it first in India for service—one reason analysts say it should profit handsomely from an expected boom in air travel inside India, and be able to compete on international routes as well. Many investors see Jet as a way to invest in the growing spending power of India's middle class.

The risk: Jet is losing its first-mover advantage. It faces new private competition from Air Sahara and India's first low-cost carrier, Air Deccan. As many as five more discount carriers plan to open for business in 2005. They face hurdles to applying the discount model in India, where there are no airport slots left in or near big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and costs for landing fees and jet fuel are extremely high. Still, a fare-price war may be coming. Jet says it's not worried, because it gets 80 percent of its revenue from business travelers who don't pinch pennies. And whether it helps Jet or not, the sight of thriving competition is sure to attract more foreigners to Brand India.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

a black day for indian filmmaking

(This article appeared in Newsweek International in February 2005).

Feb. 28 issue - Indian director Anurag Kashyap expected "Black Friday" to strike a nerve. He hoped it would spark debate. After all, the film is the first feature to deal with the serial bomb blasts that devastated Mumbai in 1993, killing 300 people and injuring thousands. What's more, Kashyap's film seeks to explore the motives behind the attacks and attempts to show that India's opportunistic politicians—who thrive on a cycle of organized violence between Hindus and Muslims—bear a great deal of responsibility for the tragedy. But no matter how much controversy Kashyap anticipated, he was totally unprepared for the legal challenges by the alleged bombers that stopped the film's release last month.

Mushtaq Tarani, one of the men accused in the bombing case, moved the Mumbai High Court to suspend the release of the film, arguing that the dramatization of the crime would prejudice the trial against him. The court issued an interim stay, which the Supreme Court upheld, and now the filmmakers must wait for a ruling from the high court on whether the interim stay will be lifted. Tarani may have a point: "Black Friday" uses the defendants' real names. Tarani himself is shown planting one of the bombs, though Kashyap argues that the voice-over of a character undergoing police interrogation establishes the scene as just the point of view of another gang member. "It's based on a book that has been out there for two years," Kashyap says. "But [the court's] logic is that people don't read books but they do see films."

That's exactly why Kashyap and producer Arindam Mitra wanted to make the movie in the first place: to find out how Indians would respond to the idea that they, along with the politicians they support, are responsible for the Hindu-Muslim violence that culminated in the worst terrorist attack in their country's history. The question now is: when, if ever, will they get to find out?

—Jason Overdorf

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.