The Era of Personal Products

Despite our many reservations about the current political/economic situation, we are long-term optimists. Civilization has some serious storms that must be weathered first. But, in the words of Doug Casey, "The future is probably not only brighter than we imagine, but brighter than we can imagine."

Advances in biotech and nanotechnology, which we have covered in these pages before, have a lot to do with that. But there's something else on the horizon.

Last year, Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, published a little book that got scant publicity but contains ideas of far-reaching consequence. It was called FAB.

No, it wasn't (thank goodness) yet another attempt to cash in on the never-ending interest in the Beatles. It addressed, as specified in the subtitle, The Coming Revolution on your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.

Gershenfeld begins by recalling his high school days, when "college-bound kids like me had to sit in rather sterile classrooms, while the kids taking up trades got to go to a vocational school that had all the cool stuff--machine tools, welders, electronic test equipment, and the like. At the time, this split seemed vaguely punitive [to] me. I couldn't understand why an interest in making things was taken as a sign of lesser intelligence."

In fact, Gershenfeld points out, that split far predates his adolescence. He traces it all the way back to the Renaissance, when the execution of an artist's vision was first delegated to artisans, whose work was considered mechanical rather than creative. At the same time, the "liberal arts" gained a supremacy over working with one's hands.

The division of labor intensified with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, as machines began to squeeze many artisans out of the equation. Anyone could learn to operate a machine that produced goods faster and more uniformly than craftspeople.

Carry the trend forward to today, and what we have is a system where you conceive of, say, a house. An architect designs it, a structural engineer may check it for flaws, a builder builds it, an electrician wires it, a plumber plumbs it, and so on, until finally a building inspector inspects it and tells you to tear half of it down because it doesn't meet code.

More or less the same thing would happen if you were trying to invent a better toothbrush or had a sure-fire idea for a new engine that ran on water. In other words, insight, design and manufacturing exist in separate worlds with few points of overlap. For the most part, neither the person that originally envisions something, nor the end user, actually lays hands on the product to be produced until it's done.

Furthermore, the introduction of new products is constrained by market limitations. If you have a pressing need for some complicated device that no one else wants, then you're going to have a hard time finding a manufacturer for it.

All of this, Gershenfeld writes, is about to change--in a very big way. Soon, you will be able to imagine something and see it through to its final physical form, all by yourself.

The twin keys to this revolution are found in a couple of acronyms: CAD (Computer Assisted Design) and CAM (Computer Assisted Manufacturing). These have, along with everything else in the computer revolution, been developing at breakneck speed, with quantum leaps in both power and ease of use. And they have been joined by fabrication processes of increasing flexibility and portability.

Putting together a car from scratch in your garage may be a few years off, but in some ways the future has already arrived. Gershenfeld has been teaching a course at MIT called "How to Make (Almost) Anything," in which he challenges students to dream something up, then produce it. Nor is his instruction limited to the country's engineering elite, either. Gershenfeld and his protégés have run workshops in underserved inner city communities, with stunning results.

One such workshop set up a small, traveling version of the fab lab back at MIT: "a laser cutter for making two-dimensional shapes and parts for three-dimensional structures, a sign cutter for plotting flexible circuits as well as graphics, a milling machine for making precision structures and circuit boards, and tools for assembling and programming circuits." Add in a microcontroller to run the whole array, and you have a powerful design and manufacture operation at your fingertips. Best of all, the entire setup fits comfortably into a single small room.

Once the mini-lab was in place, Gershenfeld writes, the plan "was to first teach a few interested MIT students how to create the circuit boards [for custom controllers for computer games], and then have them show the kids at the community center." But before he could do that, an 11-year-old girl named Dalia showed up. "Dalia thought the idea sounded pretty cool, so she shoved [my grad student] aside and announced that she was going to make the board instead of him."

She did, too. With parts flying everywhere and no clear idea of how it all worked, Dalia nevertheless finished the board and "it worked the first time we powered it up."

Dalia is not alone. In a wonderful example of how kids often pick things up far quicker than their more educated parents, Gershenfeld tells the story of Sugata Mitra, an Indian computer scientist. Mitra's Delhi office abuts a slum and one day, on a whim, he punched a hole in his wall and faced an Internet-connected monitor outward. All it had connected to it was a joystick.

To Mitra's amazement, within a day the local street kids--who were thought not even to speak English, and who received not a moment's instruction--were surfing the Net and had left a message, "I Love India," on the screen. When he asked them how they managed that without a keyboard, they showed him a "character map" program on the control panel that allows clicking on an on-screen keyboard. "Sugata has a Ph.D.," Gershenfeld writes, "but he didn't know how to do that."

These small examples make the point. Technology that was once the sole province of specialists is rapidly becoming so user-friendly that it is now essentially available to all.

Among his more ambitious projects, Gershenfeld has worked with such technological neophytes as: inner-city Boston kids, to create an entrepreneurial jewelry manufacturing operation, using scrap material; villagers in India, to develop homegrown devices to monitor food safety and agricultural engine efficiency; and nomadic herders in northern Norway, to construct a wireless network for animal tracking.

The future? Giving his imagination free rein, Gershenfeld envisions programmable digital fabricators "offering the physical world exactly the same kind of universality provided by a general-purpose computer." As an added benefit, "the inverse of digital fabrication is digital recycling." That is, a machine that can construct also implicitly contains the information for deconstruction. It will be able to break something down to its raw materials and construct something else.

So, will your garage be able to spit out a pickup to haul those azalea plants today, then recycle it into a small sedan for the trip to the city tomorrow? Someday, maybe it will.

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Posted 06-27-2006 11:02 PM by Doug Casey