Making Stuff

25 April, 2005

I have a kind of obsession with being able to make stuff and with people who already can. It's not something I'm especially good at, making stuff. Now, I can write, play, and record songs. I can research and write newspaper articles. I can draw and paint pictures and take photographs. I can make websites. I can make websites that do things. I can make widgets

What I can't do is actually build anything in the three dimensional physical world. When I try to measure out and cut parts for a simple box, say, it always ends up as a non-euclidian (and therefore non-assemblable) hyper-box. I can't solder together circuits that work (mostly I make solder bridges and melted breadboards). When it comes to the kind of making that results in useable devices, gizmos, or doodads, of whatever complexity, I am pretty hopeless.

Lately, this divide between things I can and can't make has been seeming both more important and more bridgeable because of the omnipresence of Neil Gershenfeld. He's in the first issue of Make Magazine, on a podcast on IT Conversations, the author of a book that showed up in my mailbox. Unlike me, Gershenfeld can definitely make things. He is an MIT prof, runs the Center for Bits and Atoms, and teaches a class called How to Make (almost) Anything.

Gershefeld does "fab" -- Personal Fabrication. Basically, he's developed a system for combining a set of high tech tools usually used for rapid protyping of potential industrial products that allows people to design and build technologically and aesthetically sophisticated devices, for example Revolver, a three dimensional display made by spinning a single clear plane filled with embedded LEDs. Or a web browser for parrots. Or a sound proof backpack that will save your screams for later. He teaches relatively non-technical students (for MIT) to use these precision tools, which is apparently pretty easy to do -- in the IT Conversations talk he mentions being able to get someone started using most of the tools in a day.

Gershenfeld thinks of the Fab Lab, the $20,000+ worth of machines used in these kinds of processes as equivalent to the mainframe stage of the development of personal computers. He imagines a day when all of these tools become intigrated and miniaturized to the point where they can sit on your desk and become part of your normal life, just like the personal computer did, doing for manufacturing what the desktop publishing revolution did for graphic design and production. People will design and build quirky devices that just they or their friends and family will want to use. What will be the manufacturing equivalent of the family newsletter that was the pride of so many early desktop publishers? Also, I wonder about the "prosumer" market that this kind of revolution will create. Just as in music there are now many fine gradations between professional products and services and cheap eaasy to use lo fi toys I wonder what kinds of high level, professional grade manufacturing will be available to us all for only a small investment before too long and what objects we'll simply be able to "print out" on our desks.

Imagining this future, I wonder if learning to use laser and waterjet cutters, injection molding machines and microfabricators, will finally mean that I'll be able build a box where all the sides fit together flush.

Tagged: , , , , , ,