Digital fabrication is so much more than 3D printing

There is too much coverage in the press about the wonders of 3D printing and it’s a distraction from the real revolution, argues Neil Gershenfeld, the head of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms. “The coverage of 3D printing is…

There is too much coverage in the press about the wonders of 3D
printing and it’s a distraction from the real revolution, argues Neil Gershenfeld, the head of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms.

“The coverage of 3D printing is a bit like the coverage of
microwave ovens in the 50s. Microwaves are useful for some things,
but they didn’t replace the rest of your kitchen,” he said,
speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges
summit. “The kitchen is more than a microwave oven. The future is
turning data into things, but it’s not additive or

He explained how the first computer was connected to a milling
machine at MIT in 1952. “What has grown forward is a digital
revolution in making things. It’s cutting, grinding, lasers,
plasmas, jets of water, wires, knives, bending pins, weaving,
moulding, extruding, fusing and bonding.”

For Gershenfeld, the real revolution of fabrication is much more
fundamental: it’s bringing programmability to the physical
world. He invited the audience to compare the performance of a
child assembling Lego and a 3D printer. The child’s assembly of
Lego will be more accurate than the child’s motor skills would
allow — that’s because the pieces are designed to snap together in
alignment. Meanwhile, the 3D printing process accumulates errors,
perhaps due to imperfect adhesion in the bottom layers. Lego is
also available in different materials, while 3D printers have
limited ability to use dissimilar materials. Finally, a Lego
construction can be easily disassembled.

For Gershenfeld, Lego represents the digitisation of material,
while 3D printing is still an analogue process that draws upon
digital files. The bricks enforce constraint and, as a result,
accuracy. He explained how digital fabrication echoes what
happened when analogue communication and computation became

Shannon at Bell Labs showed in 1938 that by converting a phone
call into a code of zeros and ones a message could be sent reliably
no matter how noisy the system, thanks to error correction. By
converting the signal into code, it increased accuracy

Shannon’s research had been motivated from working with a giant
mechanical analogue computer which used rotating wheels and discs
and became more inaccurate the longer it ran. John von Neumann and
colleagues showed that they could digitise data in computing as

Gershenfeld explained how just as we have digitised
communication and computing, we must digitise fabrication by
learning how to program the growth of materials so that the “code
you put into them doesn’t just describe them but becomes the
materials themselves”.

“Digitisation of fabrication is where you don’t just digitise
design, but the materials and the process. The computer program
doesn’t just describe the thing but becomes the thing. That’s not a
metaphor. It’s literal. It’s exactly the story with Von Neumann and

He then talked about the development of Fablabs around the world
— centres with various digital fabrication tools allowing people
to make anything they wanted. When he created the first one at the
Centre for Bits and Atoms, he was swamped with students he didn’t
expect to see who wanted to make things such as web browsers for
parrots, an alarm clock you had to wrestle with to turn it off and
a dress that defends your personal space. “Students weren’t making
what you could buy in stores, but what you can’t buy in

If MIT is the mainframe computer, then the Centre for Bits and Atoms is the
equivalent of the Programmed Data Processor (PDP) for fabrication.
Now more and more Fab Labs are emerging, akin to developing the
internet for digital fabrication.

He said: “Online mass classes are just terminals plugged into
the mainframe. The Fab Lab network is creating an academy where
students have peers in workgroups and tools that are linked with
online content and video. You can download the campus and design
something in any facility and make it in any other. This blows
apart the boundaries of lead institutions.”

You can read more on this topic in Gershenfeld’s paper, How to Make
Almost Anything.

Image: BY-SA 2.0