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 Amazon.com 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