Bruce Sterling: When it comes to coining terms of art, few can beat Neil Gershenfeld of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. In the wake of such influential concepts as wearable computing, things that think, and Internet Zero, Gershenfeld and his intrepid grad students are cobbling together mobile manufacturing systems they call fabrication laboratories, or fab labs.

A fab lab is a miniature factory for the digital age. The latest version consists of three Linux PCs, a laser cutter, a combination 3-D scanner and drill, a numerically controlled X-Acto knife, and a handful of RISC chips. Set it up, turn it on, and you can crank out not only solid objects like eyeglass frames and action figures but, thanks to Gershenfeld’s research, electronic devices like radios and computers, too. The professor recently installed one at a technical institute in southwestern Ghana, where it has proven hugely popular. His success suggests that manufacturing – like publishing, coding, music and film distribution, and communications before it – is about to bust out of its industrial confines.



But what happens when a fab lab leaves the lab, when it becomes a plain old everyday fab?



For a clue, take a look at today’s top-of-the-line desktop fabricators, also known as 3-D printers, rapid prototypers, and stereolithographs. These machines, which can be as small as an office copier and cost as little as 25 grand, have found productive niches all over: architecture, design, medicine, packaging. Most work by assembling bits of powder and glue or depositing layer upon layer of ceramic, paper, or plastic. They can only output solid objects, and those tend to be frail, best used as prototypes for more serious manufacturing.



In theory, an ultrasophisticated molecular-assembly fab could make amazing things – say, a diamond-encased iPod. But never mind the high end; the low end is more interesting. Desktop manufacturing brings the digital revolution into the domain of everyday things. Where once there were objects, now there are well, fabjects.



Now bear with me, because I’m about to blue-sky. To make an object with a desktop fab, you need three things: the equipment itself; a digital design, or model, of the object; and consumables – as in plastic, powder, or goop. The equipment may be prohibitively expensive, but it’s bound to become less so. If fabs decline in price to, say, $2,500, they’ll become the hacker hobby tool du jour. Another price drop of similar magnitude and you’ll find broken ones at the curb waiting for the garbage truck.



More here.

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