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FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication

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What if you could someday put the manufacturing power of an automobile plant on your desktop? It may sound far-fetched-but then, thirty years ago, the notion of “personal computers” in every home sounded like science fiction. According to Neil Gershenfeld, the renowned MIT scientist and inventor, the next big thing is personal fabrication–the ability to design and produce your own products, in your own home, with a machine that combines consumer electronics with industrial tools. Personal fabricators (PF’s) are about to revolutionize the world just as personal computers did a generation ago. PF’s will bring the programmability of the digital world to the rest of the world, by being able to make almost anything-including new personal fabricators. In FAB, Gershenfeld describes how personal fabrication is possible today, and how it is meeting local needs with locally developed solutions. He and his colleagues have created “fab labs” around the world, which, in his words, can be interpreted to mean “a lab for fabrication, or simply a fabulous laboratory.” Using the machines in one of these labs, children in inner-city Boston have made saleable jewelry from scrap material. Villagers in India used their lab to develop devices for monitoring food safety and agricultural engine efficiency. Herders in the Lyngen Alps of northern Norway are developing wireless networks and animal tags so that their data can be as nomadic as their animals. And students at MIT have made everything from a defensive dress that protects its wearer’s personal space to an alarm clock that must be wrestled into silence. These experiments are the vanguard of a new science and a new era-an era of “post-digital literacy” in which we will be as familiar with digital fabrication as we are with the of information processing. In this groundbreaking book, the scientist pioneering the revolution in personal fabrication reveals exactly what is being done, and how. The technology of FAB will allow people to create the objects they desire, and the kind of world they want to live in.

278 pages, Hardcover

First published April 12, 2005

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Neil Gershenfeld

11 books20 followers

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Steve.
190 reviews
April 17, 2018
I enjoyed this book, not simply as a nearly always interesting exploration of technology - whatever issues I have with Gershenfeld's interpretations - but also because it was so different from both the mainstream "pop" accounts of the rise of digital fabrication but also from the less engaging work coming out of social studies of science on the same phenomenon.

At a visceral level, the level of basic reading, this book was mostly a great pleasure. Gershenfeld is a talented writer. In some ways, the content made me think of the work of Henry Petroski, but much more engaging. I deeply admire how fearless Gershenfeld is in addressing some very technical things and his skill in making it accessible, although I confess I skimmed the more computer scientific material near the end of the book. (Scraping through a C++ programming class in college was enough to convince me that programming is just not my thing, and reading in depth about programming awakens unpleasant memories.) I much preferred the tone of Gershenfeld's technical descriptions because it didn't have that residue of "dumbing down" that even good popular works on technology can have. But I am versed in technology (I am earning a doctoral degree in science and technology studies, after all), so perhaps my tastes are different.

I also liked his cases. He focused almost entirely on the use of computers in education, particularly in underserved communities, and in community projects in the global South. While I am not at all anti-commercial, this book was a delightful change from the too crassly commercial stories offered in Mark Hatch's MAKER MANIFESTO and Chris Anderson's MAKERS. Admittedly, this book came out at the very start of the Maker Movement PR storm and is not really rooted in that movement, even if it helped to inspire it.

Refreshingly, he is not at all a technical snob. He is able to understand what makes a pencil still a viable design instrument (p. 122) and his delight at the inventive solutions of those in the global South is palpable. He is a true free intellect in the sense that he is not wedded to his own approach but appreciates freshness and creativity wherever it is to be found. Or at least the book comes across that way.

He starts out with a bit of a historical overview, something I seek to do myself, applaud, and wish to see more of (but see below on lack of references).

His notion of making things out of materials that behave like LEGO blocks that would simultaneously ease fabrication (because they would constrain and guide how they are assembled, thus easing the burden of the automated fabricator) as well as reducing waste (by being able to be completely recycled or even possibly perfectly repaired), is fascinating, even if probably relegated to the far distant future.

Overall, it was just a very interesting read and based on reading this, I am not surprised that his breakthrough MIT class "How to Make (Almost) Anything" was so popular.

However, I will also leave you with some of the problems that I found. First of all, and particularly at the beginning, Gershenfeld comes close to making inflated claims about the technology. Interestingly, he uses more global absolutes (will, must, is) at the beginning than at the end, when qualifying language enters. He himself says near the end that "technologists do have a terrible track record of reflecting on the wisdom of where their work might lead" (p. 245). Part of that has to do with absolute language which feeds into a highly inflexible and specific world-view (and one that fails to account for how the world itself changes through technology). On the other hand, as a MIT professor, I can't say that his technological enthusiasm is surprising. And, as noted above, he is not a tech snob, which counts for a lot in my view.

Second, while a lot of his stories, particularly in the global South, sound nice, the fact is that more than a decade after this book was published and presumably some two decades after some of these events took place, I have yet to see solar power dominate in Ghana or other innovations take root. Here let me make a modest plug for my own two areas of expertise, science and technology studies and organizations. Although there is a lot of dross in STS, as with the work of technologists too I might add, we have been able to establish that no technology is independent from societies, cultures, or their institutions. Hence, it is not enough to invent or make something, it has to be integrated in a particular set of people (and not all of this is postmodernist either, one of the classic accounts, written in a traditional vein, is the landmark NETWORKS OF POWER by the late historian Thomas P. Hughes.)

Whether or not you agree or disagree with particular political viewpoints, and STS embodies a wide range even if the social scientific academic trends left, it is difficult to deny that technology always has a social component and that this is often poorly understood and often even more poorly dealt with both by academics and practitioners. Gershenfeld so often comes so close, but we could all do with more engagement between STS scholars and technologists.

Finally, I am deeply annoyed with the fact that the book contains no endnotes or bibliography. He cites a few books in "The Details" appendix at the end, but nowhere near what he must have used. For instance, he offers a detailed history of the transformation of the artisan and the relegation of craft/hand work to the "illiberal arts". As this is right up my alley, I wanted to mine his references for further reading, but there is nothing there, unless it is in Myles Jackson's book HARMONIOUS TRIADS. This is deeply galling to me and I have to ding him for it, doubly so because he is also an academic, even if, I am sure, historical references are perhaps less critical in his sector of scholarship.

All that aside, however, a recommended read.

Profile Image for Artur Coelho.
2,253 reviews61 followers
August 11, 2016
Mentor dos laboratórios de fabricação (fablabs), em essência da democratização do acesso à tecnologia e estimular do saber fazer junto das comunidades, figura de base do que hoje chamamos de cultura maker, Neil Gershenfeld estruturou em 2005 um conjunto de ideias-base e experiências práticas que, na altura, estavam restritas a contextos específicos, mas que hoje alastraram num movimento dinâmico à escala global.

Grande parte deste livro é o que se espera. Gershenfeld detalha algumas das tecnologias de base dos Fab Labs (microcontroladores, linguagens de programação acessíveis, ferramentas de maquinação e manufactura aditiva), mostrando exemplos de múltiplas aplicações localizadas que contrariam o paradigma de design industrial vigente. São exemplos que vão de escolas indianas a projectos universitários, e têm em comum a procura de soluções locais para problemas que se fazem sentir em comunidades reduzidas. Esse é um dos elementos estruturais da cultura maker, do DIY, que lhe confere poder social transformativo.

Mais pertinentes, do ponto de vista de um educador, são duas outras ideias contidas neste livro. Gershenfeld traça uma relação muito directa entre o tipo de trabalho propiciado pelos Fab Labs e novas formas de aprender, centradas não na memorização de conhecimentos padronizados mas na aprendizagem dinâmica, significativa, onde conhecimento teórico e prático se unifica no trabalho de projecto. Este aspecto do fazer (propiciado pelo saber) prático, com implicações na expressão e criatividade e no desenvolvimento de competências técnicas e aprendizagens CTEM é uma das grandes mais-valias trazidas pelas metodologias de trabalho potenciadas pelos Fab Labs/makerspaces. Este argumento baseia-se muito no trabalho de Seymour Papert, colega de Gershenfeld no MIT, e talvez o maior proponente do conceito de aprendizagem construtivista, que parte das teorias de desenvolvimento cognitivo de Piaget, influenciadas pelo potencial das tecnologias digitais aplicadas a uma aprendizagem estruturada em projectos práticos.

Outra grande ideia que sustenta os argumentos de Gershenfeld é o potencial desta abordagem no derrubar das barreiras entre conhecimentos artísticos, técnicos e intelectuais. Quebrar a separação pouco natural entre a técnica e o conhecimento, herdeiros do que Gershenfeld aponta como uma tradição vinda do renascimento que valoriza o intelectualismo e relega a aplicabilidade prática para um remoto segundo plano. Uma ideia explorada em dois níveis, na quebra de barreiras epistemológicas e no reconhecimento do potencial expressivo, artístico e criativo das capacidades consideradas como meramente técnicas (programação, concepção tecnológica, design).

Apesar de escrito em 2005, FAB ainda se sente como revolucionário. Onze anos depois, a cultura maker está em crescimento, mas ainda é vista como algo à margem da normalidade técnica e cultural. A impressão 3D, algo incipiente à data de edição deste livro, afirmou-se como tecnologia de fabricação e prototipagem. As necessidades de preparação das crianças para um futuro exigente, aliadas à progressiva disponibilidade de tecnologias de baixo custo (impressão 3D, arduino, entre outras), têm levado os professores e educadores a apostar neste tipo de abordagens, traduzindo-se numa grande diversidade de experiências no domínio da robótica, introdução à programação, sensores/controladores e impressão 3D. As artes adoptaram as linguagens estéticas específicas às tecnologias como forma de expressão plástica. A mudança prometida por este conceito já não é uma especulação.
Profile Image for Brendan .
732 reviews34 followers
September 22, 2011
I had looked at this before. I'm not nearly as excited about this as this guy is. This isn't ' moleculr fabrication ' keep in mind. It's machine tool + computer control , basically shop class + the internet. Very vague overall ( the whole thing still is really )
635 reviews13 followers
April 7, 2013
Pretty lightweight. Lots of stories of pointless little projects, many of which have no connection to computer aided fabrication. The only really interesting parts were stories of low cost Indian technology.
Profile Image for Samuel.
195 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2018
I believe that I read this book a little late as the "fab lab" craze has already become well entrenched in libraries, schools, and maker spaces all across the country, yet it's still a tremendously helpful book for the practical futurist and aspiring engineer alike. Neil Gershenfeld takes us across a light historical plain, explaining how manufacturing used to do things, how they do things now, and where manufacturing is headed. He also offers a glimpse into his work to spread technological understanding across the globe and how everyday people are using what they learn to improve their daily lives. Being a Computer Science major, I loved the portion of this book that explained the different "Hello World" projects that the author developed and executed across a number of fabrication techniques.
January 5, 2018
Could be inspirational for some but I think it could’ve been summed in 20 pages.. some may find the examples good to reinforce the ideas but I find it boring and to detailed. Generally it’s a good book to have in your bookshelf.
574 reviews1 follower
February 6, 2019
A compelling book about how technologies are now at a point to allow us the move away from mass production to individual problem solving and creation, using laser cutters, 3D printers, computers and software.
Profile Image for Nick.
Author 6 books6 followers
September 8, 2022
A brief book on the past, present, and future of fabrication technology with the goal of being able to make anything. Written in the mid-2000s, some of the predictions have come true and many haven't. It might have been more relevant at the time it was published but isn't as interesting today.
Profile Image for Chris Boette.
57 reviews1 follower
March 3, 2010
I've been excited about the idea of 3D printers, and localized manufacturing more generally, for some time now. My intrigue has been limited to pining for expensive things, following blogs in a haze, and dreaming of What I Could Do while staring at the cloudy sky. I came across Fab somewhere, and picked it up from my local library.

Physics PhD, Bell Labs alum, MIT prof and head of the Center for Atoms and Bits there--the author has more than enough credentials to allay my concerns regarding the book's age; it's almost five years old at this point. In that time, things have happened, and a lot of them. I'm not sure exactly what those things are, but they occurred, and this static technology, lovingly known as "book," did not record them.

At least, according to Gershenfeld, not yet.

But that's not really what the book comprises.

What we see--through historical anecdotes, stories of imagination realized, and technical explanations--is that the Future is now. Five years ago. Yes, books will one day connect to the internet to update while sitting on a shelf or bumping around in your backpack or lost under some piece of furniture, but the future that Gershenfeld imagines [and then builds:] is one centered around fabrication on an individual or communal scale. Utilizing what one of his students calls "tools of mass construction," the author shows how one can design, engineer, and build [almost:] anything, thanks to the "digitization of fabrication."

The book takes its inspiration from a class taught by Gershenfeld called "How to Make (almost) Anything." [His apparent fondness for parentheses extends beyond course titles, and spills into the pages of his book, in case you were wondering. Like my brackets.:] In a very wise move, he uses students' projects as examples to illustrate the principle modes of personal fabrication, or just "fab."

He also deftly weaves in history lessons regarding the development of technologies we take for granted, or are assumed to understand. By presenting the growth of such tech in a linear fashion, we are more easily able to comprehend how more modern technologies function, such as a PC. We can also see the significance of the evolution of programming languages or how a serial cable works or what a bit really is.

We also see how these technologies are affecting people now, five years ago. Though he breaks the book into three main sections--The Past, The Present, and The Future--anecdotes relating to the current struggles surrounding globalization, class, post-/industrialization, m-f survival, &c., are everywhere in the text. For those most interested in utilizing this "coming revolution" to create independent RC's, I would recommend studying how the people residing in India and Ghana and even Norway use the fab labs to address their material [food, shelter, income, &c.:] concerns, as opposed to whimsy and novelty. I am not dismissing the importance of whimsy and novelty, but it's hard to be excited about a bicycle modeled after a painting, when you're being poisoned by the bad milk you got at the village market.

Toward the end, we start to see a possible future, where "[i:]mperfect machines will be able to make enormously complex perfect parts" in much the same way that information is preserved coming over the internet even if signals sometimes get fucked up; people start rearranging atoms; machines make machines; and entities like governments and corporations and aid agencies "may no longer make sense if almost anyone can make almost anything.” Thanks to this book, I'm less terrified of the immediate future--ten years from now--but more frightened of the Futurama.
1 review1 follower
May 6, 2012
Since working as a PR for the FabCafe in shibuya, Tokyo, my interest in Fab has been increasing. "Fab" itself is untranslated English word, and customers and we use "Fab" in Japanese too. However, the fact is that none of us cannot explain what Fab exactly mean and where Fab can lead us.

I find the book "Fab" very interesting as it provides various views not only on fabrication but also the evolution of the technology itself. Putting myself in a business for a while, I was beginning to take a world as I see on the surface and my focus was likely to be put on what the other smart people would do. The Fab opened my eye in the way that what I was seeing is not the others might see.

In FabCafe, Fab is described as this:
Fab is a coined word that has double meaning. Fabulous and Fabrication.
This is partly true. According to Gershenfeld, Fab has more deeper meanings.
It sounded to me that Fab refers to the phenomenon that computer-aided manufacturing technology becomes personal and available in the form of personal fabricators.

Implications of Fab are various, but falls under two categories.
1. Personal
1-1. Motivation: The motivation for Fab is personal.
1-2. Required skills: Art d, design... even you don't acquire advanced engineering, Fab is available to you.
1-3. Learning Process:Driven by demand for rather than supply of knowledge.
1-4 Who?: Makers(Fabbers)=Users
1-5:Where: Fab develop and produce local technological solutions to local problems.

2-1.Replicator: Personal Fabricators is a machine that makes machines.(Self producing machine)
2-2. From Bit to Atom: Fab brings digital worlds into the physical world.

1. India- To develop measuralent, 3D scanning and printing for chikan
2. Norway->Wireless network and animal tags
3.Boston Turn scrap into sellable jewelly.

.Tools can develop and produce local technological solutions to local problems
. 20c was the century of mass production, 21c is going to be century of personal fabrication, which might play a role of game changer in mass production era. You fab something that you really want. Demand for fab is based on personal desire, not on marketing.
.You can make a bicycle by receiving data via e-mail, and custom it!

Profile Image for Brandon.
106 reviews
March 3, 2010
I skipped a few parts throughout the book when it started talking about programming and such, but overall it was a pretty good book. An MIT professor talks about how he has helped build little workshops called 'Fab Labs' (Fab short for Personal Fabrication) all around the world. In these Fab labs people can come in and design a range of customized items that machines will then cut/create into the desired results. I was not quite sure how hard it was to build such things, but Gershenfeld has set up these labs around the world: from India to Manhatten to all over the place.
Children and adults alike come in to make things ranging from little projects to complex things. For instance, some people at MIT would make an internet/computer designed for parrots to use; while another used the lab to make a devise that you can scream into (whenever you feel like it) and it will save that scream for later playback. However, people around the world have used it to track sheep, tell how sour a certain glass of milk is (when purchacing milk), build models of buildings, and multiple different things only limited by human imagination. The purpose of these labs where to introduce products that would be pointless to mass produce by a company, but may be useful to the individual.
Some parts of the book were a bit slow, but it was interesting to read about human innovation and what humans can come up with.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,113 reviews
December 20, 2012
This book considers how the industrial revolution has almost gone full circle.

From the early days of artisan and craft production, to the massive factories that can turn out numerous copies of the same item, the future of production will start to be possible from your desk or office.

He considers the new rapid prototyping machines and looks at the way the developing world can use these tools to make their own lives easier. The author goes into some detail on some basic projects that anyone can undertake.

It’s not too bad, but technologies have moved on swiftly since it was published, and I think that Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson will give an more up to date point of view
Profile Image for Douglas Summers-Stay.
Author 2 books38 followers
September 26, 2014
By "personal fabrication" it means 3D printers and other computer-controlled tools to build whatever you can design. It doesn't mean "telling lies about yourself." It gives lots of examples of the one-of-a-kind things people design for themselves to use, such as a portable scream box that you can scream into when you feel the need without people around you hearing and save the sound for when you get home.
The ultimate idea is for these 3D printers to be able to print out working copies of themselves.
Profile Image for Adih Respati.
87 reviews33 followers
August 1, 2007
I gambled when I decided to buy a book on computer-related invention, but it is, now I know, a good bet. Gershenfield argues that the age of personal computer is near its end, and now comes the age of personal fabrication --where every individual can manufacture any object they wish. Here, Gershenfield describes what his prophetic laboratory in his MIT office is capable of doing --and soon to be public purchase.
Profile Image for Smellsofbikes.
253 reviews18 followers
March 29, 2010
Long on MBA-friendly short stories about people who benefit or could benefit from personal fab equipment, short on details about fab equipment. Good if you know next to nothing about it and want to read a bunch of heart-warming examples of how prototype fabrication can affect individuals.
3 reviews
September 17, 2007
why do we have to haul all our stuff across the pacific? this book shows it's not necessary .. if more of us tackle the challenge making our own stuff.
28 reviews3 followers
October 26, 2009
Fab! Fab! Fab! Kids in Ghana programming a CNC machine to build a bicycle! Awesome!
323 reviews13 followers
October 24, 2010
Meh. Not that interesting. I wanted more economics and business. This was too light.


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