Cory R writes "Neil Gershenfeld is an MIT professor and the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms where he teaches a course called "How to Make (almost) Anything." In his book FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Gershenfeld describes the current state of personal fabrication tools and the surprising impact that these tools have when made available to everybody from MIT students to villagers in India in the form of Fab Labs. Lots of fabrication techniques and some technologies are discussed including those that are still only in development today. The pace of development seems to be accelerating and as the capabilities of the tools advance, Gershenfeld predicts one day he will be able to drop the word "almost" from the title of his course." Read on for the rest of Cory R's review.
I first heard of Gershenfeld and this book after listening to a podcast of a discussion he participated in at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. I'm a programmer by day but in my pre-parenthood days, I played with a bunch of microcontrollers and simple robotics-related hardware (mostly motors and sensors). The idea of being able to fabricate anything I could think of appealed to me instantly.
Gershenfeld asserts that personal fabrication tools are developing along a path very similar to the one taken by computers. Computers were once large, expensive, complicated machines accessible only to skilled operators. Now they are much more accessible and have evolved to the point that most people can make use of them to some degree. Machine tools, at best, are still at the mainframe-stage of evolution but that is changing rapidly. What happens when machine-building machines, which can manipulate atoms and molecules, are as accessible as computers are today?
Well, it turns out that machines already on the market can give you a pretty good sense of what's in store. While not quite at the level of Star Trek replicators or Nutri-Matic dispensers from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (both, oddly enough, seem to be mostly used to make tea or something almost, but not entirely, unlike tea), fabrication machines are getting smaller, and cheaper. Some of the tools discussed in the book include:
- desktop milling machines : affordable
- sign cutters : novel uses including cutting copper sheets into traces for circuit boards
- laser cutters : very expensive
- waterjet cutters : very expensive but extremely useful
- 3D printers : expensive and slow, but very cool
- functional material printers : print resistors and capacitors into circuits a layer at a time
- microcontrollers : powerful and cheap
- CAD software : difficult to use
- CNC machines : expensive, difficult to use
The longest section of the book is called "The Present". The section is about the current state-of-the-art and it alternates between a chapter of anecdotes and project descriptions and a chapter on some aspect of fabrication (e.g. cutting tools, CAD software, electronics, etc...). By keeping the practical or social discussion next to the technical discussion, Gershenfeld makes what could be dry technical details accessible and engaging. It makes the book and the central ideas accessible even to (or perhaps especially to) non-technical readers.
In fact, the author has been very careful to not include too much technical detail in the text of the book. There are notes at the end with slightly more info, and a pointer to a website with some of the actual schematics and Python source code, but it is still very frustrating for a technically inclined reader who immediately wants to dial in on some of the details. The book will age better because of this, but it will send many Slashdotters running to their favorite search engine looking for more information.
The book includes a lot of illustrations and diagrams. They are all in black and white but have an inconsistent presentation. Sometimes the photos are presented on a weird background that looks like a network of circles and squares while others have no background. There are several photographs of circuits that do not add anything other than to show you how simple the circuit is (often just a microcontroller and a couple of other components). You usually cannot even make out what the individual components are or how anything is wired up. There are many photos of the people at the center of the stories and those pictures do manage to convey a sense of the awesome impact the tools have.
So, what's missing from the book? Personally I would have liked to see the technical appendix greatly expanded. I understand that this information doesn't age well and I'm guessing the author (or wise editor) didn't want to elaborate on the technical details for that reason. Fab is written for a very general and broad audience. Enough technical details are presented to keep the geeks reading, but it mostly wouldn't discourage a non-technical reader with the possible exception of the chapter on electronics. For a lot of Slashdot readers, the book definitely leaves you wanting more.
The chapters are generally under 20 pages each and the writing is fluid and simple. The book has a table of contents and a comprehensive index and even though Gershenfeld doesn't cite other publications in the text, I would have loved to see a bibliography or other list of materials that expand on the topic of personal fabrication. A few pointers from the author to complementary material would have been appreciated. The book definitely piqued my interest and fortunately, a little research has shown this to be a very active subject.
The book ends with a rather defensive look forward. There are many who feel self-reproducing machines could basically take over the planet. Gershenfeld acknowledges this and answers with his belief that any negative technologies that emerge will be fought with countermeasures, like the virus-antivirus battle on modern PC's. It's pretty much inevitable that evildoers will acquire this technology, but Gershenfeld is optimistic that fab labs can help address the root causes for conflict, largely assuaging any threat.
In summary, if the idea of having your own replicator is appealing (hello tea lovers!) or if you are interested in a new approach to giving people around the globe the tools they need to help themselves, then you will enjoy and likely be inspired by this book. Just be prepared to look elsewhere for the minutiae. I rate this book an 8/10.
You can purchase FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.