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Lots of us have personal computers, but what if you could have a personal factory in your home? As this ScienCentral News video reports, researchers are working on a machine they hope will fit on your desktop and allow you to make almost anything.
"Go to MIT"
For Neil Gershenfeld there are certain perks to being director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One of them is access to his media lab's high-tech machines — laser cutters, high-powered waterjet cutters, focused ion beam machines — even for low-tech things like making toys for his kids Grace and Eli (a chair for Eli's stuffed bear, a crib for Grace's doll). In fact, the kids got so used to the idea of having just about whatever toys they wanted made from scratch, they came up with a new catchphrase — "Go to MIT" — to use when other kids might have requested a trip to the toy store.
Pieces cut by Gershenfeld using a precision laser cutter.
But this is more than a cute story about some lucky kids with a smart dad. It's a perfect example of what Gershenfeld calls "the deep idea of digital fabrication" — that one day we'll all have a machine called a "fabber" that's capable of making nearly anything.
"In the last digital revolution we had a deep idea of digital computing that led to mainframes and then PCs; and PCs let ordinary people access and manipulate information, and we have the Internet and mp3s and all of that. But fabrication today is still analog," he says. "So we're doing research at MIT, and colleges elsewhere, on how to build a digital fabrication technology, where you compute to build. You run programs to assemble, essentially, microscopic LEGOÂ®'s — to build perfect things out of imperfect parts. Now, the implication of that is going to be personalizing fabrication."
Gershenfeld saw how this might play out in the future through his "Fab Lab" project. Using a grant from the National Science Foundation, he set up several small labs around the world — India, Africa, Norway, Costa Rica, and Boston — equipped with a collection of machines that approximated what would be in a fabber.
"There were a number of surprises in the fab lab project," says Gershenfeld, who wrote a book about his experience, called Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop — From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. "The first is that ordinary people can use these tools. There's a bias that you go thru years and years of schooling before you can do something like this. In the last year or two we've been doing this fab lab project they've spread all around the world not because we woke up and decided the world needs precision fabrication in rural India, but because of this tremendous demand we found for getting access to invention to meet local needs."
So in India they worked on making sensors to test the fat content in milk (dairy farmers in the community are paid based on the milk's fat content; there are also concerns about distributors watering down their milk). In Africa it was solar panels and steam turbines for electricity. And in Norway they created a radio-controlled tracking system to help sheepherders keep track of their flocks. (You can view Gershenfeld's latest report to the NSF here.)
Gershenfeld became convinced that access to tools like these is at least as important as crossing the so-called "digital divide" of computing: "All around the world, what we've found is that there's a lot of attention to a digital divide, but when we got pulled to these sites all around the world... we'd find rooms of idle computers and demand for access to these capabilities, because around the world there's a need not just for information but to measure and modify the world. It's this idea of crossing an instrumentation and fabrication divide. To locally develop and produce advanced technological solutions to local needs."
Bringing it to your desktop
But the fab labs themselves aren't the future — they're made up of several large, expensive (about $20,000 total) machines. So while they might show how fabbers are likely to be used in the future, new fabbers are being created by researchers like Hod Lipson and Evan Malone at Cornell University. They're in the process of building and modifying a fabber, currently about the size of a dog house, that builds 3-D objects by depositing different materials (they call them "inks") through various tools, like syringes, contained in the fabber.
Evan Malone watches over his fabber.
"We call this ink, but it could be fluid or it could be paste — there's different types of inks, so to speak, and their combination can produce a large variety of things," says Lipson. "You can imagine inks that produce structure. You can imagine inks that produce some electrical behavior so that you can use them to print transistors, for example, or electrical circuits. You can imagine inks that when you print them, produce motion, and therefore motors and actuators. Or other inks that sense touch and can them provide signals and that way become sensors. So all these different inks have different functionalities and if you have a printer than can dispense all these inks different inks simultaneously, you get a large variety of function in the same machine."
Lipson and Malone recently reported in the Rapid Prototyping Journal that their fabber built a working battery from scratch using inks made from zinc, carbon, manganese dioxide, and various plastics. More recently Malone says they've printed biocompatible gels that contain living cartilage cells, plastic, rubber materials with embedded conductive wiring, and a crude plastic transistor. Their goal is to print complete working robots that can essentially walk out of the fabber on their own – or as Malone put it, "No assembly required, and batteries are included."
"Imagine how complex things could be if you could fabricate functional materials," says Lipson. "You could fabricate wires, motors, and batteries — everything integrated — not unlike biology where you have muscle and nerve all intertwined in the same integrated system. So what we're after in the long term is really expanding the design space of what you can fabricate in general, and disengaging the design from the fabrication. So you can design anything you want, without worrying about how it's going to be fabricated."
Gershenfeld's vision is the same. He sees fabbers as something that give people more than a new set of tools.
"In the lifetime of this fab lab project, the first step was this explosion where they got pulled around the world by demand," he says. "The second step was empowerment--ordinary people realizing they could make this and having a life transforming experience, and start thinking of themselves as inventors and scientists and not just consumers."
So while your desktop factory might be 10 to 20 years away, Gershenfeld and Lipson say it's never too soon to start thinking: What would you create?