Electronic Design


The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal FabricationBy Neil Gershenfeld

The central premise of Neil Gershenfeld's Fab is this: What if atoms could be manipulated as fluidly as bits of data? What if you could make almost anything you wanted, almost immediately, in the comfort and privacy of your own home? Gershenfeld, the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, oversees a program that's attempting to do for matter what computers do for bits and bytes.

The personal computer gives all of us the means with which to manipulate bits. Gershenfeld, the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), dreams of relatively low-cost and widely available "personal fabricators" that will usher in a new age of artisanship by returning the means of production to individuals.

Indeed, the dream is already reality, at least on a small scale. Gershenfeld's CBA has launched a series of "fab labs" in remote corners of the world, allowing creative individuals to fabricate the missing pieces that they needed to harness solar energy in Ghana, track herds of reindeer in the mountains of northern Norway, or inspire entrepreneurial spirit in inner-city Boston.

The only problem, at this point, is that "fab labs" entail a fairly hefty investment in a computing infrastructure, various pieces of equipment such as milling machines, laser and water-jet cutters. But Gershenfeld sees this as a temporary constraint, asserting that personal fabrication is only in its infancy and that the costs will fall as they did with personal computing.

The book itself is somewhat disjointed, with chapters on technology basics (sometimes too basic) interspersed with examples of "fab lab" operations. But the book does get across its central idea, which is that by empowering individuals with the ability to "make almost anything" (which is, not coincidentally, the title of a wildly popular course Gershenfeld teaches at MIT), there is potential for change on a vast level.

In some sense, the book seems almost to be a plea for angel investors, someone, anyone, to help Gershenfeld get this idea out of the lab, off the ground, and into circulation. It seems like an idea that's too good not to move forward.

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