The Third Digital Revolution: Fabrication

Neil GershenfeldI had a recent opportunity to meet Professor Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, who is recognized as one of the most accomplished scientists of America, and attend his talk on Digital Fabrication at an event organized by MIT on Innovation for an Emerging India. He calls it the Third Digital revolution as the First one was when Analog communication was digitalized, second when analogue computing was digitalized and this is the third. Each of these digitalization revolutions brought about a huge improvement in human lives and today we can hardly think of a life without the same.

Professor Gershenfeld’s profound thinking is that the manufacturing/fabrication process should now get digitalized. Even though some machines have digital controls today the process is analogue. He argues that the humans or even all life is made of only about 20 different ribosomes as the basic building blocks which replicate themselves and then join to further make the DNA, then the protein sequences, then different types of cells and then different living organisms. So we could replicate the manufacturing/fabrication process in the same way to build the basic minimum number of building blocks and code digitally into those blocks as to how they should replicate and join to make different things that we need. For example one of the blocks could be a resister and another an inductor, using just these two we could build any circuit and if we could code their manufacturing process into machines itself, then we could only need to have one of each building block with a machine which will understand the code of manufacturing/fabrication. Similarly, we could grow meat or vegetables and therefore avoid the wasteful process of feeding and growing animals for meat savings many plants and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

If we could perfect this manufacturing/fabrication process then we could travel in space, go to Mars without any baggage ( other than basic building blocks and code) , produce whatever we need as a human race from local elements like ribosomes absorb the energy and material from their environment. If such manufacturing could be miniaturized to very small basic building blocks then that could be the solution to all manufacturing/fabrication in future.

This experiment started globally and now has about 1000+ small community labs that are already operational in big cities and very rural areas where less educated could come and manufacture/fabricate items for personal use. Like the digital computer revolution led to personal computing and smart phones, digital communication has led to internet enabling us to exchange information and know how across the globe, digital fabrication will lead to personal fabrication or assembly of products for personal use with local materials as source.

The digital fabrication is in very nascent stage. The revolution is both bottom up for personal use and top down with sophisticated machinery and if all the knowhow can be coded then emphasis can truly shift to fabrication based on needs and not on learning the underlying technology as codes for all fabrication can be just down loaded from a master computer. This may be the case in next 20 years and following the same path as scientific analogue computers journey into personal smart phones went through an evolution process.

In India, Ghana, Vietnam, Africa there are many rural less economically developed places where such labs are in operation and are growing on their own much like the growth of internet. In Pune there is Vigyan Ashram and school kids have created many new technological products for their vocation. One such business is of hatching eggs with fabricated machinery powered with solar energy. The eggs need to be kept in a humid temperature controlled environment and rotated every half an hour and this fabricated machine does exactly the same as a hen. The learning could be ploughed back into master computers, the network of labs leverage each other’s specializations, fabricated products and the technology is evolved in this feedback mechanism exponentially.

For viewing Professor Gershenfeld’s one such talk you can view: It is truly enlightening and very far sighted.

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