Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Bits and Atoms, has built version 1.0 of the personal fabricator.

The “fab lab”, as Dr Gershenfeld has nicknamed his invention, is a collection of commercially available machines that, while not yet able to put things together from their component atoms, can, according to its inventor, be used to make just about anything with features bigger than those of a computer chip. Among other tools it includes a laser cutter that makes two-dimensional and three-dimensional structures, a device that uses a computer-controlled knife to carve antennas and flexible electrical connections, a miniature milling machine that manoeuvres a cutting tool in three dimensions to make circuit boards and other precision parts, a set of software for programming cheap computer chips known as microcontrollers, and a jigsaw (a narrow-bladed cutting device, not a picture puzzle). Together, these can machine objects with a precision of a millionth of a metre. The fab lab’s purpose is to endow inventors—particularly those in poor countries who lack a formal education and the resources to implement their ideas—with a set of tools that can translate back-of-the-envelope designs into working prototypes.



And it works. In Pabal, an Indian village with a population of 5,000, a dairy farmer’s income is tied to the fat content of his cow’s milk. Students at the nearby Vigyan Ashram science school are using a fab lab to build a sensor that will give Pabal’s farmers a precise measure of that fat content. In Takoradi, Ghana, people have used the labs to produce a cassava grinder, jewellery, car parts, agricultural tools and communication equipment such as radio antennas. Solar-powered items to harness the relentless local sunlight are in the works. In Norway, Sami animal herders—who are among Europe’s last nomads—are using fab labs to make radio collars and wireless networks to track their charges. And in Boston (admittedly not part of the developing world, but conveniently near MIT), the residents of a mixed-income housing complex are using one of Dr Gershenfeld’s labs to create a wireless communication network.



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