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Blog // Technology
June 1, 2005

DIY, Fabrication and Emergent Engineering

We seem to be experiencing a renaissance in DIY thanks to new technology.

Back in the 90s I was sucked into the whole DIY (do-it-yourself) thing. Sure it was a clever ruse to turn boring hosuehold repair products into colourful lifestyle brands and sure it a self-aggrandising way to turn otherwise boring stories about routine home maintence into enthralling tales about domestic bravery and bold aesthetic judgement.

But, it was fun!

For a while it was like the whole cultural zeitgeist was aligned with DIY. People whose middle class education (and upbringing) had been designed to hide them from manual skills suddenly fell in love with using their hands to make and repair things.

This lead to mini-renaissance in creativity. You could redesign and reshape your domestic environment. The process of changing your home was rewarding and deeply satisfying.

The New DIY

Over the past 5-6 years, however, this DIY ethos has grown and evolved as more and more people take tools to hand and try to bring ideas to life that are not restricted to the domestic realm.

In the musical instrument world, for example, effects makers like Zachary Vex have subverted what was a big-business dominated market with radical looking new products. The artist painted designs, wild tonal possibilities, and playful product names reflect a new ethos where products are trying to feel like something you could’ve made in your garage.

And for course, they are inspiring lots o DIYers to do exactly that. Looking at an online store like Tonefactor shows us the extent to which DIY has become boutique industry. Some of these budding experimenters become new companies. The same is happening, not just across other areas of music manufacture, like guitar picks, but also in hi-fi, sports equipment.

The Emerging Technology of DIY

Neil Gershenfeld is someone who wants to push our thiking on this forward and to ponder the potential for this drive in the face of new technology. He is director of the MIT Centre for Bits and Atoms and author of Fabrication. His idea is to harness the power of computers to make almost anything, on a small-scale. This cuts the distance between DIY and major scale production. So, imagine yourself with not just an iMac and an iPod, but also an iCNC, an iLaser-Cutter and in fact a whole iLab to make, well anything you can render on your computer.

In this interview Gershenfeld likens this transition in manufacture to the transition from mainframe computers to PCs. After teaching a wildy successful MIT course called “How To Make (almost) Anything,” he gained an insight into what drove his students attempts at personal fabrication.

“These students were not inventing for the sake of their survival, or developing products for a company; they were expressing themselves technologically. They were creating the things they desired, rather than needed, to make the kind of world they wanted to live in.”

Beyond DIY And Onto Engineering Justice

It soon dawned on Gershenfeld that for around $US10,000 one could build a desktop fabrication lab complete with computer, microcontrollers, milling machines and so on. It’s safe to assume this price will eventually come down the same way conventional printing, and later CD burning also came down in price. Obviously this emergent engineering might initially just be for rich kids to express themselves creatively.

But, it’s possible this could change the path to manufacturing for the world’s poor as well.but for the world’s poor to manufacture with minimal outlay. Fabrication labs are already in place to help produce agriculture related spare parts that would normally be considered commercially unviable by normal manufacturing companies.

Responses
Toni 18 years ago

This ties in with a radio article I heard a while back about self-replicating machines and 3 dimensional printers/fabricators. My original post is here. The idea that this could be used to manufacture items in the very near future is an exciting one.

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