The Era of Absolutely Fabulous Manufacturing Is Coming

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The Era of Absolutely Fabulous Manufacturing Is Coming

Only 30 years ago, it seemed inconceivable that most American households would have their own computers. In 1977, DEC’s president, Ken Olsen, notoriously proclaimed, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”

At the time, computers were mostly huge, expensive mainframes or minicomputers, kept in chilled rooms, and they received instructions on punch cards. Few people could imagine how computing power and speed would multiply, hardware would shrink to fit onto the desktops or the laps of users, and the user interface would become so simple that a child or a grandmother could use it.

Keep that image in mind as we explore the next revolution in technology: personal fabrication. Just as the PC brought computing power into the home, the PF, or personal fabricator, will bring manufacturing power into the home.

Among the leading visionaries of the PF movement is Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, which consists of 15 faculty members from a variety of disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and engineering.

In his book, FAB,1 Gershenfeld explains an important distinction between PCs and PFs. Personal computers made the digital world of bits accessible to individuals. By contrast, personal fabricators will make the physical world of atoms accessible to individuals. Also, while PCs have become smaller and easier to use than mainframes, the process for making them is still complex. That won’t be the case with PFs.

As Gershenfeld explains, PFs are machines that can make other machines, including other PFs. He compares PFs to printers that can print things rather than images.

They work by digitizing fabrication, as earlier devices digitized communications and computation. What this means, according to Gershenfeld, is that a PF will be able to make anything — including itself — by putting atoms together.

Just as a printer’s ink cartridge contains different colors of ink that can be instructed to reproduce an image on paper, MIT’s research lab is inventing inks that can “print” insulators, conductors, and semiconductors to make circuits. Researchers are also working to insert structural materials into the printing cartridges that will create mechanical parts in three dimensions.

While a mass-produced, desktop personal fabricator is still years away from the marketplace, Gershenfeld and his colleagues at MIT have already used seed money from the National Science Foundation to create “fab labs” in the field...

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