When I was a kid I read a science fiction book called Tom Swift and His Space Solartron, about a boy genius and a machine that could make any manufactured good you wanted (imagine, one machine replacing every factory in China).
The solartron isn’t reality yet, but we’re getting close. The Economist recently wrote about Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms, who has created version 1.0 of the personal fabricator.
What’s a Personal Fabricator? It’s a package of commercially available machines that can produce almost any complex electronic gadget you ask it to.
“Among other tools,” says the Economist, “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..."
“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.”
These “FabLabs” are already in use around the world. In Boston, residents of a housing complex are using one to create a wireless communication network. In India, students have built a sensor to measure the fat content of milk for local dairy farmers. In Ghana, FabLabs have been used to produce jewellery, car parts, agricultural tools and radio antennas. In Norway, animal herders are making radio collars and wireless networks to track their herds.
Gadgets to Go. A boon for innovation, and specifically for the developing world. And it’s not science fiction anymore.
The June 9 issue has an article on Fab Labs called “How to make (almost) anything”. The online version is subscriber-only, but here’s a link to a March story: http://www.economist.com/science/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3786368
Visit FabLab Central at http://fab.cba.mit.edu/