CONNECTED CL ASSROOM
Personal Fabrication Systems:
From Bits to Atoms
By Glen Bull and
Media—text, images, audio, and video—
underwent a transformation from
analog to digital formats during the
transition from the 20th to the 21st century. Digital
media can easily be replicated, downloaded,
revised, edited, and reposted, and the implications of this are affecting education, government,
entertainment, culture, and society.
The transition from atoms (analog media)
to bits (digital media) is the first half of a digital
revolution. The second half involves the round
trip back from bits to atoms to enable the creation
of tangible materials based on digital designs.
Teams of aerospace engineers in different
countries from around the globe collaborate on
development of digital designs that combine to
create a physical aircraft. Computer-controlled
manufacturing systems have existed for some
time, just as mainframe computers existed prior
to minicomputers and microcomputers. However, just as mainframe computers led to minicomputers, engineers at MIT are now employing fabrication laboratories that are the minicomputer
equivalent of digital fabrication.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms
has developed digital fabrication laboratories,
or “Fab Labs,” that allow individuals to create almost anything. Fab Labs include devices such as
computer-controlled laser cutters and milling machines for assembling 3D structures from 2D parts.
The cost of a Fab Lab is about $50,000, making installation in sites as far flung as India,
Ghana, and Costa Rica affordable. These countries are using them to fabricate technologies
that address local needs. When the fabrication
revolution realizes its potential for design and
creation of physical objects in response to real
problems, the effects may be even more profound than the transition from atoms to bits
that preceded it.
And now, computer-controlled fabrication
systems that are the microcomputer equivalent of MIT’s Fab Labs are emerging. You can
purchase a personal computer-controlled die-cutting machine that shapes paper, cardboard,
and vinyl for the same price as an ink-jet printer—that is, for less than $500. The advent of personal fabrication systems makes it possible for
schools to begin exploring the educational implications of the digital fabrication revolution today.
Glen Bull and Joe Garofalo are co-directors of
the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the Curry School
of Education at the
University of Virginia.
They may be reached at:
Teachers, especially in the elementary grades,
construct a variety of materials for manipulatives, bulletin boards, etc. In fact, most schools
already have mechanical die-cutting systems.
Parallel Evolution of Computing and Digital Fabrication
Computer-controlled manufacturing plants MIT Fabrication Laboratory
Personal fabrication systems