Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Fab For Every Home

Here's a nice piece by my friend Kevin Maney, one of the best tech writers in the business, on Neil Gershenfeld's new book "Fab."


"This machine makes every man self-sufficient. It takes the stickum right out of society."
That's a quote from a 1958 science-fiction story, Business as Usual, During Alterations, by Ralph Williams. It's about a machine called a duplicator, which aliens drop off on Earth as a test for humans. Put anything on the duplicator's tray and the machine makes an exact copy.

People go nuts, making duplicate duplicators, then making jewelry, clothes, food and money, rendering all products and cash virtually worthless. It's both a dream machine and a nightmare machine, giving everyone what they want but threatening to wreck the economy and the underpinnings of civilization.

So, of course somebody is really inventing one today.

And not some loony in a garage who thinks he's Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This is Neil Gershenfeld, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms and a certifiable physics genius. He's got backing from the National Science Foundation. He's got interest from the Pentagon, venture capitalists and foreign governments. This week, he's in South Africa, where he's setting up one of his creations in Pretoria.

He calls his machines "fabs," and he's just published a book about his work, Fab: The Coming Revolution On Your Desktop — From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.

Gershenfeld's ultimate goal is to invent home fabrication machines that will be as common as Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printers. They will be able to make anything: custom Barbie clothes, MP3 players, cow-shaped cream pitchers, Barry Bonds baseball cards from the 1980s when he looked skinny — you name it.

"We're aiming at making the Star Trek replicator," Gershenfeld says, referring to the machine on the USS Enterprise that could conjure up a cup of coffee or a toenail clipper on command.

How far along is Gershenfeld? Well, in one sense, not very. His fabs look like a cross between a computer and a high school shop class. The gadgets include a laser cutter and a milling machine, and together they make parts that must be assembled rather than churning out whole finished products. Users have tended to make one-off oddities, including a bag for silencing a scream in case you just have to let one loose in a crowd.

But Gershenfeld argues that his fabs today are the historical equivalent of 1970s minicomputers.

Before the 1970s, only big entities could afford to buy computers, which were room-size mainframes. The first minicomputers cost around $25,000 and could fit in a closet, allowing small companies or groups to own computing power. They were followed in the 1980s by personal computers, which fit on a desk and cost one-tenth as much.

And now, computing power is so cheap it can be in teenagers' bedrooms, working on such mission-critical tasks as instant messaging.

Similarly, Gershenfeld's fabs cost around $20,000 and can fit on a couple of tables. They do some basic fabrication that previously required a factory floor. And, Gershenfeld says, the fabs "can do today what you will do later with a single machine that costs $1,000."

It might be hard to accept that a machine will rearrange atoms into 3D products. But there are precedents. If you go into many research and development labs, you'll find a rapid prototyping machine that can make a 3D form out of plastic powder or liquid.

The other day, I met Thomas Mino, CEO of a nanotech company called Lumera. It can change the molecules in a plastic to give it different properties, depending on whether it will be used in radio antennas, circuits for computer chips or devices for drug research. If nanotech factories can build plastic products one molecule at a time, why couldn't that capability someday sit in your office?

Look at it another way: Back in 1975, anyone would've had a hard time believing consumers would eventually have home laser machines that would make optical disks that could each store the equivalent of 150 books. Yet that's exactly what a CD burner is.

In 2020 or so, you might be ready to play Wiffle ball with your kids but can't find the ball. So you'd go on the Web, perhaps finding a Wiffle ball design that's been modified by a aerodynamics graduate student so the ball dips like a Roger Clemens slider.

You'd download the design the way you download a PDF file today. Then instead of clicking "print," you'd click "fab."

The computer would dump the design into your fabricator, which would spray molecules from a cartridge to form the ball. A small fee for the design would get charged to your PayPal account. Otherwise, the only cost would be that once in a while you'd have to replace the cartridge, which no doubt would cost three times more than the fabricator.

As that example shows, in a fab world, hardware will be changeable — programmable — much as software is today. People could tinker with it and sell their customizations online. As Gershenfeld points out, it truly would become open-source hardware.

Gershenfeld dismisses worries that such a machine would undermine the manufacturing economy — just as home printers have not killed off the printing industry. "There will still be mass production for mass markets," he says. "Then for all the stuff that isn't from Wal-Mart, you make it at home."

Even in science fiction, society adapts to the fab. At the end of Williams' story, the characters figure out that instead of an economy based on standardized, mass-manufactured products, the post-duplicator economy would be one of mass-diversity. Their biggest complaint is that the duplicator didn't change things enough.

"The whole framework of our society has flipped upside down," says one character. "And yet, it doesn't seem to make much difference, it's still the same old rat race."

Bummer.

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