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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Third Digital Revolution: Making Things

Sam Calisch made this kayak in Neil Gershenfeld's "How to Make Anything" class. (Sam Calisch/MIT)Neil Gershenfeld is an MIT professor and head of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. (MIT)For his final project in Neil Gershenfeld's "How To Make Almost Anything" class, Shaun Salzberg designed and built a pair of internet-connected chess sets dubbed "Shadow Chess" that allow the users to play against a remote opponent. (Shaun Salzberg/MIT)"FabFoos" foosball table created by Alex Schaub in the Amsterdam fab lab. (Alex Schaub/Waag)A mobile fab lab is pictured at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. (MIT)Fab labs provide access to prototype tools for personal fabrication in underserved communities around the world. (MIT)

Neil Gershenfeld runs MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and teaches the class “How to Make Almost Anything.” His students’ past projects include a dress that defends the wearer’s personal space; an alarm clock you have to wrestle with in order to convince it you’re awake; and a web browser for parrots.

“This is like the birth of the Internet, but it’s literally an internet of things.”

– Neil Gershenfeld

From that class came a new idea: a kit he calls a fab lab — a collection of about 10 tools, including a 3D printer, computer-controlled lasers and milling machines. Individuals can use the fab lab to make “almost anything.”

There are a few hundred of these fab labs now, including above the arctic circle in Norway, in rural India and in African villages. In the lab in Norway, locals created their own antennas and radios so farmers — who are no longer allowed to be nomadic herders due to land ownership issues — could locate their sheep and reindeer in the mountains.

Gershenfeld calls it the “third digital revolution.” The first was communication, the second was computation and the third is fabrication — making things. It will seriously disrupt, but not destroy traditional manufacturing, Gershenfeld said.

“Mass manufacturing will still stay, but it will by definition make the boring stuff because everyone gets the same thing,” he said. “This is like the birth of the Internet, but it’s literally an internet of things. It’s an internet where data becomes things and things become data. And we’re seeing the births of entirely new businesses where you go to market by shipping data and you produce on-demand where you consume.”

Neil Gershenfeld talks about fab labs:


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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