Neil Gershenfeld at PopTech and AIDG's Dream of a Guatemalan Fab Lab

The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. — William Gibson

For the time-strapped here is the sub 2 minute version courtesy of CNN’s Principle Voices.


Duration: 1min 26sec

Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, unleashes a torrent of information in this 2005 PopTech video where he talks about the coming revolution of personal fabrication. In it, he discusses his work breaking down the barriers between digital and analog worlds as well as “bringing widespread access to the modern means for invention” to the people. In my favorite part, he explains his view on the Renaissance’s key misstep. While it brought so much knowledge, literacy, and capacity for self-expression to the masses, it sadly turned making things with your hands into an “illiberal art”. With the proliferation of DIYers, hacker spaces, desktop fab machines and arduinos galore, this sentiment seems to be changing.

His bio from TED:

Gershenfeld is best known as a pioneer in personal fabrication — small-scale manufacturing enabled by digital technologies, which gives people the tools to build literally anything they can imagine. His famous Fab Lab is immensely popular among students at MIT, who crowd Gershenfeld’s classes. But the concept is potentially life-altering in the developing world, where a Fab Lab with just $20,000 worth of laser cutters, milling machines and soldering irons can transform a community, helping people harness their creativity to build the things they need, including tools, replacement parts and essential products unavailable in the local market.

What’s in a Fab Lab

  • Machines to cut out 2-D shapes from sheet metal, plywood, etc. E.g. laser cutter or plasma cutter
  • Machines to cut out 3-D shapes. E.g. CNC machines, computer controlled mills, lathes, routers, etc.
  • A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
  • Equipment for injection molding plastic
  • Rapid prototyper (3D printing with plastic)
  • Printed circuit board milling
  • Computer with CAD programs like ScanCAD, AutoCAD, etc or even drawing programs like Corel Draw.
  • Resistors, capacitors, chokes, diodes, transitors, microcontrollers, regulators, LEDS, and other electronics components
  • Testing equipment: multimeters, oscilloscopes, ultrasonic transducers, etc.

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

Here is their most up to date Fab Lab inventory (11/2/08)

Gershenfeld has developed a universal theory of fabrication, plus a shopping list of what you’ll need. It goes like this:

First, there are subtractive tools, devices that can cut through materials with computer-guided, down-to-the-micron accuracy. Gershenfeld opts for a $1,900 Roland CAMM-1 CX-24 sign cutter; it works like a dot matrix printer, except the head is a knife that can slice through thin sheets of materials like vinyl or copper and is thus suitable for chopping out precision circuit board elements and bendable plastic. For thicker materials, he suggests the $15,000 Epilog Legend 24TT laser cutter. It uses a 35-watt carbon dioxide laser to slice through wood and acrylic as thick as an eighth of an inch.
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To produce even more-complex 3-D shapes, like an engine-block part, you need a different sort of subtractive tool – something that can cut up entire chunks of metal, working the way a sculptor chisels a figure out of a block of marble. Gershenfeld has a $4,500 Roland Modela MDX-20, a milling machine that uses a computer-guided drill bit that can move in three dimensions. The MDX-20 is small enough to sit on your desk and can handle materials – from plastic to light metals like aluminum and brass – with precision of up to two-thousandths of an inch.

Then there are the “additive” tools, machines that fab stuff from the ground up, the way a potter or bricklayer might do. The $18,000 Formech 660 vacuum-former can take any object and mold a quarter-inch-thick sheet of hot plastic around it, quickly producing shapes like bowls or computer mouses. For more exactitude, you have the $16,500 WASP injection-molding Mini-Jector #55, which melts plastic pellets and squeezes them into a metal mold – perfect for making things like cases for electronic devices.

The final group of tools consists of circuits and chips to give your creation “intelligence.” Atmel AVR microprocessors cost about a buck apiece, but they’re robust enough to control sophisticated robotics and can be programmed using simple languages like Python, Basic, and Logo. Roland’s CAMM-1 sign cutter and Modela milling machine can quickly produce circuit boards. Pop in the chips and you’re ready to go.[Source Wired Sept 2005. Issue 13.09]

An AIDG Fab Lab?

At AIDG, we’re particularly interested in Gershenfeld’s work bringing Fab Labs to developing countries. As of June 2008, there were 34 labs in 10 countries including Costa Rica, India, South Africa, Afghanistan and Ghana.

Starting in Sept 2009, AIDG will begin outfitting and upgrading our appropriate technology R&D space in Guatemala with some of the types of machines described above. Our tack will differ from Gershenfeld’s. The machines we’d bring in would be focused on R&D and rapid prototyping of designs that could be produced by our incubated businesses and research partners. In this way we could help address what Gershenfeld calls the “fabrication divide” and help spread that future around a bit more.

Why is this step necessary for us? We want to make products that serve the needs of the poor. To do this effectively, our engineers and interns need to go through multiple rounds of design creation, evaluation and revision. We’re finding that the process of iteratively creating and testing prototypes is much slower than optimal. Slow like molasses. A non-trivial roadblock in our progress has been in our inability to do rapid prototyping in the field. If we had precision equipment in Guatemala, our team would be able speed up their prototype to product time frame. Ultimately, we want to get solid tech for underserved communities out of university labs and NGO outreach projects and into the hands of local enterprises in developing countries.

Here is an example of some design work that we’ve been able to do with tremendous amounts of help from Pete Zink (who is also on our advisory board) and Bob Sjostrom from Boston University. These 2 lifesavers CNC’ed some crucial parts for us.

Pelton cup - CAD
Pelton cup – CAD. This is one of several Pelton cup CAD drawings created by Alex Surasky-Ysasi

Pelton cup - ABS plastic mold
Pelton cup – ABS plastic mold. We emailed the CAD drawings to Pete Zink and Bob Sjostrom and they created multiple ABS plastic molds for us. For the series of tests we were doing, we wanted several different-sized precision molds.

Pelton cup - bronze cast
Pelton cup – bronze cast. This is actually an earlier design created by XelaTeco for a hydro system for the Nueva Alianza community. It’s here mainly the illustrate the full process from CAD to mold to final cup.

CNC machining of Pelton cup in ABS plastic
The CNC machine works its magic.

A very good interview with Gershenfeld on NPR’s Science Friday

Related Posts:
3D Printing – Fab at Home [Wall Street Journal]
Mixing Polyester Resin (Google Video)
Link of the Day 102108: Sexy Stoves from Siemens [Appropriate Technology]
Product Demos at AIDG Guatemala

Hat tip to Chris Flanagan for the Gibson quote.

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