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FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication Hardcover – April 12, 2005

4.0 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gershenfeld, who runs MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, foresees a time when computers will upgrade from PCs to PFs, or personal fabricators. This eye-opening survey of "fab labs" completes the progression in Gershenfeld's earlier studies of the overlapping of computer science and physical science, such as When Things Start to Think (1999). A programmable PF, predicts Gershenfeld, will make it possible for users to design and create their own objects, instead of shopping for existing products. Interest in such cybercrafting became evident in 1998, Gershenfeld says, when an overwhelming number of students took MIT's How to Make (Almost) Anything course, aimed at "fulfilling individual desires rather than merely meeting mass-market needs." After inspecting those students' unique creations, Gershenfeld offers a history of how things are designed and made, from the Renaissance to industrialized automation, and then offers an overview of the technology and social implications this science involves. The 150 illustrations aid in clarifying some abstract concepts. Gershenfeld's extrapolation of these futuristic wonders is a visionary tour of technology, tools and pioneering PFers, making this an important update to Stewart Brand's 1987 The Media Lab. However, a "self-reproducing" PF that can make anything, including itself, is a chilling reminder of Philip K. Dick's 1955 Autofac, with its frightening prospect of an automated factory system beyond human control. Agent, John Brockman.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Scientific American

Thirteen years ago I unboxed my new Apple Macintosh, plugged it into the phone line, and discovered the existence of another world. Spirited, unruly discussions on everything from quantum physics to punk rock ebbed and flowed across a borderless electronic forum called Usenet. Anyone anywhere could join in. More definitive sources of information--how to combat an infestation of pine-tip moths, join two boards with a dado joint or locate the great nebula in Orion--resided among a far-flung collection of computers called Gopher servers, a precursor to the World Wide Web. So much had been happening beyond my awareness. I felt like an African bushman turning on a radio for the first time. It wasn't just words and pictures that had been lurking out there. With the chirps and squawks of modem tones, I could download animated clocks, perpetual calendars, a gizmo that made my keyboard clack and ding like an old Smith Corona typewriter. Legions of amateur programmers were creating and distributing, largely for their own amusement, a multitude of virtual machines. I hadn't thought of it this way until I read Neil Gershenfeld's new book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, but I was witnessing the revival of a spirit that had been fading since the Industrial Revolution: that of the artisan. While corporations like Microsoft and Oracle were employing droves of programmers to homogenize products for the mass market, these technological craftsmen were working on a personal scale. Crafting their code in home workshops, they enjoyed the same satisfaction that comes from building a bookshelf or caning a chair. Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--the futuristic name is quintessential M.I.T.--believes that what is true now for virtual commodities will soon apply to physical ones. Give people personal computers and they can write their own software. Give them devices called personal fabricators and they can make their own things. What this will mark, he predicts, is a return to the days before "art became separated from artisans and mass manufacturing turned individuals from creators to consumers." Turning the pages, I could barely wait for the revolution to begin. With a smattering of Unix, I have been able to custom-tailor my own virtual machinery--an algorithm that checks in hourly with Amazon, recording the sales rank of my newest book; another that intercepts unwanted e-mail press releases, dispatching to persistent senders increasingly testier replies. But what about more solid stuff, like the knob that broke off the toaster? Or, even more annoying, all the extraneous, cryptically labeled buttons cluttering the TV remote control, when all I really want is On, Off, Channel, Volume and Mute? With mouse and keyboard, I could describe my needs to a personal replicator, hit enter, and wait for the product to emerge. If it wasn't quite right, I could tinker and try again. If someone else wanted to make one, I could post the code--the input for the fabricator--on my Web site or e-mail it to friends. The physical world, Gershenfeld promises, will become as malleable as the digital world, and we will no longer have to settle for the imperfect cobbling together of compromises available at the mall. It was a little disappointing to learn that for now personal fabricators are actually rooms full of expensive equipment called "fab labs." But be patient: a few decades ago a computer equivalent to a laptop weighed tons. In a class Gershenfeld teaches called "How to Make (Almost) Anything," laser cutters, water-jet cutters, numerically controlled milling machines--the kind of tools used in CAD-CAM (computer-aided design and manufacture)--give students the feeling of mastery that comes from taking an idea into the real world. Industrialists use this equipment to make prototypes, exact replicas of items they intend to manufacture. In the fab labs, as Gershenfeld puts it, the prototype is the product. Each is designed for a customer base of one. A student who had trouble getting up in the morning made her own fiendish alarm clock. Silencing it required touching a series of sensors in exactly the right order, a task certain to rouse her awake. A visitor to the lab, the actor Alan Alda, fabricated an accessory for his digital camera: a flash periscope that raises the bulb high enough that his subjects don't come out looking like red-eyed children of the damned. Even when a fab lab can be shrunk to the size of a suitcase, most people will probably content themselves with what is offered at Wal-Mart, just as they do with what's on TV. Where the revolution seems likelier to find traction is in the developing world. The best parts of Gershenfeld's book describe his adventures setting up experimental fab labs in places like Ghana and India, encouraging locals to try making tools that are unavailable or unaffordable: portable solar collectors that can turn shafts and wheels, inexpensive electronic gauges farmers can use to measure the quality of their crops, giving them an edge when they haggle with the brokers. All this may sound utopian, but it is hard not to be taken with Gershenfeld's enthusiasm. Today we have open-source software--all these free Unix and Linux programs streaming through the Net. Imagine a world with open-source hardware. Come up with a really great product, and you can share it with the world--to be hacked and modified by the people who actually use it, warrantied against obsolescence by the irrepressible nature of human ingenuity.

George Johnson is a science writer based in Santa Fe, N.M. His recent books include Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe and A Shortcut through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465027458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465027453
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,226,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Peter McCluskey on April 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book brings welcome attention to the neglected field of personal, general-purpose manufacturing. He argues that the technology is at roughly the stage that computing was when minicomputers were the leading edge, is good enough to tell us something about how full-fledged assemblers as envisioned by Drexler will be used, and that the main obstacle to people using it to build what they want is ignorance of what can be accomplished.

The book presents interesting examples of people building things that most would assume were beyond their ability. But he does not do a good job of explaining what can and can't be accomplished. Too much of the book sounds like a fund-raising appeal for a charity, describing a needy person who was helped rather than focusing on the technology or design process. He is rather thoughtless about choosing what technical details to provide, giving examples of assembly language (something widely known, and hard enough to use that most of his target users will be deterred from making designs which need it), but when he describes novel ideas such as "printing" a kit that can be assembled into a house he is too cryptic for me to guess whether that method would improve on standard methods.

I've tried thinking of things I might want to build, and I'm usually no closer to guessing whether it's feasible than before I read the book. For example, it would be nice if I could make a prototype of a seastead several feet in diameter, but none of the examples the book gives appear to involve methods which could make sturdy cylinders or hemispheres that large.

The index leaves much to be desired - minicomputers are indexed under computers, and open source is indexed under software, when I expected to find them under m and o.

And despite the lip service he pays to open source software, the CAM software he wrote comes with a vague license that doesn't meet the standard definition of open source.
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Format: Hardcover
As noted by other reviews, the begining of the book is quite an eye opener. The examples are excellent, but the book lacks focus and deeper research into what is being done by parties to come up with a personal fab lab that as individuals we can, lets say, "print" our personalized whole shirts, coats, shoes and beyond and when. What I like most in the book is the idea of teaching students hands on. I hope educators and politicians take this seriously, since hands-on-see-the-result inspires kids to pursue science and technology. It is well worth the money and time to buy and read this book, althouhg it could be much better Maybe a second edition would do it.
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In general the book was interesting, however it seemed unfocused. Often Gershenfeld seemed to be rambling from one point to another without a logical transition. Indeed, sometimes a whole section seemed to lack a discreet point, but instead was just a series of observations.

If you enjoy the topic the book will be interesting, but it lacks enough detail to be useable as a reference and the writing isn't quite focused enough to be IMHO a good read.
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After the robot duplicating IEEE Spectrum review of 'FAB' I had to run out and pick up the book, but, as a 30yr Engineering Vet/MBA, I found it less than useful. The first 17 pages and the chapter on "The Future" was almost worth the price of the book because of its more advanced and stimulating content, however the middle 95% of the book is a rehash of decades old computer and manufacturing technology. While the book is a good introduction for kids and people new to computer technology... Explaining ASCII, 1s/0s, quoting: "RISC design...that doesn't mean they are dangerous...", an Engineer will glaze over (even with our propensity for "dry" work as noted by Gershenfeld in the text).

In reference to hydroelectric production in Ghana... "In 1996 about one gigawatt was produced for the whole country...". I would have hoped that author or some of the more clever MIT grad student proofreaders would have had the knowledge and/or diligence to differentiate between power and energy. GW-H maybe? (Myhrvold...did you open this book?)

I also feel Neil's disdain of "shady business" capitalism does his students and world citizens a disservice. Money is neutral, neither good or bad, proper management can do good things. Journalists only publish the evil that discourages. Basic business mgmt certainly isn't rocket science. I would call for the Academic Community to get involved in active competitive entrepreneurship...and be the beacon in the wilderness.

My disatisfaction was complete with the PC reference to how the advent of firearms was an "immoral" change on the battlefield...(as if murder by a closer sword was somehow moral). But the amusing part was where he later recounted a technology briefing with military/industrial complex Generals.
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I'm a librarian and I ordered this book for my library because the reviews made it sound interesting. When it arrived, I processed it, stuck it on the shelf with the other new books and then mostly forgot about it.

Recently I started doing a weekly radio program. I'm constantly searching for new topics and this week I did technology. Fab was a natural, so I finally read it.

I found the book inspiring, entertaining, and exciting. The only downer, for me, was that his historical analysis was pretty shallow, but then I've studied a lot of history, especially the history of technology.

His approach to getting the fab technology out in the field so that people without much access to the latest stuff can fabricate things they need felt right on to me.

Oh yes, and he does explain how to fabricate larger stuff, using what he calls a "turtle." Apparently you can program a device to crawl around and mark out on a surface the shape you need, which can then be cut out using the appropriate tools.

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