Review: Neil Gershenfeld’s FAB

When Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, offered a class titled “How to Make (almost) Anything,” he was surprised to find himself inundated by students. In particular, Gershenfeld was taken aback by the fact that these students weren’t taking the class for some sort of abstract research, or to fulfill an academic requirement, but rather, to build things they’d always dreamed of. They brought with them ideas for all sorts of outlandish projects to make in the center’s Fab Lab. One student wanted to build an alarm clock that needed to be wrestled to make it turn off. Another wanted to make a way for a parrot to browse the Web. A third wanted a way to store her screams of frustration.

That passion, which Gershenfeld ultimately found mirrored all around the world, forms the core of Fab. People want to design and make the things they need, an eons-old urge in humanity that has to one degree or another been suppressed by factories which can make widgets more efficiently and consistently than craftspeople can. Unfortunately, these efficient operations really can’t do a good job of addressing their customer’s individual wants and needs — to a degree, customers are expected to make do with a limited number of configurations. As the yen to make resurfaces, personal fabrication machines have allowed would-be designers to build things that previously, only those factories could.

After a brief but important historical retrospective, Gershenfeld plunges into the core of the book: a collection of many different projects which highlight a person or organization’s ability to affect the world around them using personal fabrication tools.

Gershenfeld tells the story of Ken Paul, who used Lego Mindstorms to prototype a better way for the USPS to handle mail. Mel King created a fab lab to engage inner-city Boston kids. Kyei Amponsah, a Ghanaian village chief who wanted to use a fab lab to create tools for his impoverished village, like Tesla turbines to generate electricity and and vortex tubes to cool the air. Interspersed with these stories, the author describes the technologies used for personal fabrication — waterjets, laser cutters, CNC routers, 3D printers, and so on. He illustrates each technique with “Hello World” examples, highlighting the devices’ strengths and limitations.

Fab was written five years ago, pre-CupCake CNC and almost even pre-Darwin. This begs the question, how relevant is the book given that it was written so long ago? Very relevant — the topic is still super current. In fact, as I write this, the most recent versions of MAKE and Wired both feature the subject as their respective cover stories.

The reason the tech aspect doesn’t matter as much is that the fabbing movement isn’t really a technological initiative as much as it’s a societal shift. At its essence, Fab describes a blacklash of sorts against the mindset that we must look to big companies to provide us solutions, rather than coming up with them ourselves. That concept will always be bigger than the latest gadgetry.

FAB, by Neil Gershenfeld
Publisher: Basic Books
ISBN: 0465027458


My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

View more articles by John Baichtal