Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Next Generation of Computing is Fabricating

This is one of those times in which something is so revolutionary (like the automobile and the computer) that we will miss its significance until it has been around for another decade. This article will mean very little to you but ten years from now you will remember having read something about it somewhere. Just file this away and watch as the implications start to roll out in the coming years.

The future of computing lies in the capacity for ordinary people to design and produce real objects the way we design and print documents now. This kind of "printing" is currently referred to simply as fabrication and Neil Gershenfeld (left) wrote a book called "Fab" (right) about the concept a few years ago.

Gershenfeld and his colleagues at MIT have created the Fab Lab program (logo on right) with sites around the world. The implications for developing countries are significant.

The Fab Lab program, with connections to a number of partner organizations, is exploring the emerging possibility for ordinary people in India or Africa to not just learn about science and engineering but actually design machines and make measurements that are relevant to improving the quality of their lives.

Fab labs provide widespread access to modern means for invention. They began as an outreach project from MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). CBA assembled millions of dollars in machines for research in digital fabrication, ultimately aiming at developing programmable molecular assemblers that will be able to make almost anything. The scaled down Fab labs comprise roughly fifty thousand dollars in equipment and materials that can be used today to do what will be possible with tomorrow's personal fabricators.

Fab labs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway. Activities in fab labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research. Projects being developed and produced in fab labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing, and rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines.

Fab labs share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across them. This currently includes:

A computer-controlled lasercutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts
A larger (4'x8') numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house-) sized parts
A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surface-mount circuit boards
Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors

These work with components and materials optimized for use in the field, and are controlled with custom software for integrated design, manufacturing, and project management. This inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a fab lab being able to make a fab lab.

Click on the heading above to hear Gershenfeld talk about Fab Labs at the TED conference.

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