TCS Daily

Do it Make it Yourself

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 8, 2005 12:00 AM

I'm currently reading Neil Gershenfeld's new book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop: From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, and I'm finding it very interesting. It seems that the future may be arriving sooner than I had expected.

Gershenfeld, who is the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, is interested in moving us from Personal Computing to Personal Fabrication. He writes: "Appropriate computing requires the means to make, measure, and modify the physical world of atoms as well as the virtual world of bits."


This is nothing new to me, in a way. I've long been interested in nanotechnology, and nanotechnology enthusiasts have long been predicting an age in which general-purpose nano-fabricators allow people to make nearly anything on-site, out of cheap raw materials. "Sunlight and dirt," to use the standard buzzphrase. But Gershenfeld makes clear that we won't have to wait for nanotechnology to move a long, long way in the direction of what he calls personal fabrication.


This shouldn't come as a big surprise to me, really. I've engaged in a form of personal fabrication for years: Making CDs by uploading the cover art and audio files to custom manufacturers who made things to my specs and shipped them out pronto, or uploading graphics to places like CafePress to produce t-shirts and coffee mugs, for example. And, for that matter, I've produced low-volume CD and DVD releases directly on my own computer, burning and printing and making label inserts. Millions of other people do the same.


But that's only the beginning. Gershenfeld writes that it's possible to do a surprising amount of general-purpose personal design and manufacturing work by combining existing off-the-shelf components in new ways, and he spends a lot of time talking about the results of his experiments in that direction. His discussions are very interesting, but to me the most interesting thing was his discovery that lots of people want this kind of capability -- not because they hope to make money out of it, necessarily, but because they want to be able to make things for themselves that they can't buy elsewhere.


I think that people underestimate the size of the market for one-off products that interest only their designers and makers (and perhaps a few friends or fellow enthusiasts in a particular field), much as they underestimated the market for personal computers. Very few people looking at computers in the 1950s and 1960s thought that the most important role for computers in the 21st Century would be as communication devices, and yet that's probably how it has turned out. People, we discovered, had a lot more to say, and a lot more ways to say it, than anyone had realized before.


I suspect that we'll find the same thing to be the case with personal fabrication. When I go to the store, I often have a pretty good idea of what I'm looking for. Usually, I come home with something different. Sometimes it's better than what I thought I wanted; more often it's a second-best choice. If I could design and make what I wanted on the spot, I might well be happier -- and I might well enjoy the process, and the creativity, involved, too, assuming that the process was user-friendly. I suspect that lots of people will, as self-expression through design seems to have gotten pretty popular. (A real-estate developer I know said that he recently put together a development of houses and was surprised that nearly all the buyers wanted extensive customization, something he hasn't encountered before in that price range. Call it the Virginia Postrel effect!)


This is likely to have several interesting consequences. On the one hand, it's likely to address some of the problems with product design that I've mentioned. On another, it's likely to give a big push to the trend toward cottage industry that I've noted before. And, in a larger sense, it's likely to produce a substantial economic shift in general.


We're not likely to see all, or even most, manufacturing done on a personal-fabrication basis any time soon, and I suspect that there are fields where economies of scale will always prevail. But to the extent that design and manufacturing become personal activities, bigger industries will have to compete. This may lead to product improvements that benefit even those who don't bother to make their own stuff (as the home-brewing revolution of the 1980s and 1990s led to better beer even from big generic brewers), and it will likely lead to lots of new ideas being created by individuals and adopted by bigger operations. That will likely produce a significant change in the climate surrounding intellectual property, among other things.


At any rate, Gershenfeld's book points the way toward something very interesting and -- to my thinking at least -- very likely. In this area, as in many, technology is empowering the little guy. That seems to be the theme of the 21st Century.


1 Comment

I luv this post, I wanted to brign to your attention Digital ART & Scrapbooking.
We are involved in self fabrication in that art every day. We create papers embelishments and other items for people to use to create a beautiful cherished memory of their families.

The enduser has teh ability to print it at home of go to Kinko's etc and have it printed.

I do believe we have empowered the end user to become self published and an Artist by providing the tools.
If you have any question please contact me directly at
Have a great weekend,

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