Personal Fabrication

October 31, 2003

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on Edge, July 24, 2003. Published on October 30, 2003.

I run the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. It involves about 20 research groups from across campus: biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, various kinds of engineers&#8212all people like me for whom the boundary between computer science and physical science never made sense. We think about how information relates its physical properties. The way the world’s evolved, hardware has been separated from software, and channels from their content, but many of the hardest, most challenging, and most interesting problems lie right at this interface. These range from some of the deepest questions about how the universe works to some of the most important current technological frontiers.  

Let’s start with the development of "personal fabrication." We’ve already had a digital revolution; we don’t need to keep having it. The next big thing in computers will be literally outside the box, as we bring the programmability of the digital world to the rest of the world. With the benefit of hindsight, there’s a tremendous historical parallel between the transition from mainframes to PCs and now from machine tools to personal fabrication. By personal fabrication I mean not just making mechanical structures, but fully functioning systems including sensing, logic, actuation, and displays.  

Mainframes were expensive machines used by skilled operators for limited industrial operations. When the packaging made them accessible to ordinary people we had the digital revolution. Computers now let you connect to and pick something you want, but the means to make stuff remain expensive machines used by skilled operators for limited industrial operations. That’s going to change. Laboratory research, such as the work of my colleague Joe Jacobson, has shown how to print semiconductors for logic, inks for displays, three-dimensional mechanical structures, motors, sensors, and actuators. We’re approaching being able to make one machine that can make any machine. I have a student working on this project who can graduate when his thesis walks out of the printer, meaning that he can output the document along with the functionality for it to get up and walk away.

In support of this basic research we started teaching a class, modestly called "How To Make (almost) Anything," where we show students how to use the millions of dollars of machines available at MIT for making things. This was meant to be a class for technical students to master the tools, but I was wholly unprepared for the reaction. On the first day a hundred or so students showed up begging to get into a class with room for ten people, saying "Please, all my life I’ve been waiting for this. I’ll do anything to get in." Some would then furtively ask "are you allowed to teach something so useful at MIT?" There was a desperate demand by non-technical students to take this class, who then used all of these capabilities in ways that I would never think of. One student, a sculptor with no engineering background, made a portable personal space for screaming that saves up your screams and plays them back later. Another made a Web browser that lets parrots navigate the Net.

From this combination of passion and inventiveness I began to get a sense that what these students are really doing is reinventing literacy. Literacy in the modern sense emerged in the Renaissance as mastery of the liberal arts. This is liberal in the sense of liberation, not politically liberal. The trivium and the quadrivium represented the available means of expression. Since then we’ve boiled that down to just reading and writing, but the means have changed quite a bit since the Renaissance. In a very real sense post-digital literacy now includes 3D machining and microcontroller programming. I’ve even been taking my twins, now 6, in to use MIT’s workshops; they talk about going to MIT to make things they think of rather than going to a toy store to buy what someone else has designed.

In a place like Cambridge (MA or UK) personal fabrication is not urgently needed to solve immediate problems, because routine needs are already met. These students were not inventing for the sake of their survival, or developing products for a company; they were expressing themselves technologically. They were creating the things they desired, rather than needed, to make the kind of world they wanted to live in.

Between this short-term teaching with advanced infrastructure and our long-term laboratory research on personal fabrication, I had an epiphany last summer: for about ten thousand dollars on a desktop you can approximate both. What makes this possible is that space and time have become cheap. For a few thousand dollars a little tabletop milling machine can measure its position down to microns, a fraction of the size of a hair, and so you can fabricate the structures of modern technology such as circuit boards for components in advanced packages. And a little 50-cent microcontroller can resolve time down below a microsecond, which is faster that just about anything you might want to measure in the macroscopic world. Together these capabilities can be used to emulate the functionality of what will eventually be integrated into a personal fabricator.

So we started an experiment.

Long before the research was done, we thought that it would be a good idea to learn something about who would care and what it’s good for. We started using micromachining and microcontrollers to set up field "fab labs" (either fabulous, or fabrication, as you wish). They weren’t meant to be economically self-sustaining; it was just a way of building up experience. We intentionally put them beyond the reach of normal technology in places like rural India and the far north of Norway. Once again we found a desperate response, but here personal fabrication does address what can truly be life-and-death problems.

In one of these labs in rural India they’re working on technology for agriculture. Their livelihood depends on diesel engines, but they don’t have a way to set the timing. The instrument used in your corner garage to do that costs too much, there is no supply chain to bring it to rural India, and it wouldn’t work in the field anyway. So, they’re working on a little microcontroller sensor device that can watch the flywheel going by and figure out when fuel is coming in. Another project aimed a $50 Webcam at a diffraction grating to do chemical spectroscopy in order to figure out when milk’s going bad, when it’s been diluted, and how the farmers should be fairly paid. Another fab lab is in the northeast of India, where one of the few jobs that women can do is Chikan embroidery. The patterns are limited by the need to stamp them with wooden blocks that are hard to make and modify; they’re now using the lab to make 3D scans of old blocks and 3D machine new ones. At the other end of the world, at the top tip of Norway, there’s a fab lab that is being used to develop radio "bells" so that nomadic data can follow the Sami’s nomadic herds of sheep and reindeer around the mountains.

Each of these examples really are matters of survival for these people. Silicon Valley start-ups aren’t trying to solve these problems, and even if they were, the business models are unlikely to work on this scale. Through fab labs, locally-appropriate solutions can be developed and then produced locally. The design files can also be shared globally, for open-source hardware as well as software problem solving.

Working on this project has led to some very strange days in Washington DC for me, where I’ll go from the World Bank to the National Academies to the Pentagon, and they all want to talk about the same thing. The possibility of personal fabrication is enormously important for each of these institutions’ agendas, but it does not easily fit into their existing organizations.

The World Bank is trying to close the digital divide by bringing IT to the masses. The message coming back for the fab labs is that rather than IT for the masses the real story is IT development for the masses. Rather than the digital divide, the real story is that there’s a fabrication and an instrumentation divide. Computing for the rest of the world only secondarily means browsing the Web; it demands rich means of input and output to interface computing to their worlds.

The National Academies have been trying very hard to interest people in science and engineering, but on balance they’ve not been very successful at doing that. But the fab lab experience suggests that, instead of just trying to get people interested in learning about science, it’s far more compelling to enable them to actually do science that’s personally meaningful.

Continued on Edge.

© 2003 Edge. Reprinted with permission.