Neil Gershenfeld

Quite unexpectedly, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms — a lab that contemplates technology’s distant future — has a Brother’s sewing machine and growling industrial machines in its basement.<BR><BR>That’s because the...

Quite unexpectedly, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms — a lab that contemplates technology’s distant future — has a Brother’s sewing machine and growling industrial machines in its basement.

That’s because the center’s director, Neil Gershenfeld, believes technology’s next big act is to create machines that make other machines. Although MIT’s basement is filled with million-dollar, large-scale circuit board printers and metal fabricators, Gershenfeld and colleagues are working on personal fabricators — highly skilled, “desktop” industrial kits that will allow laymen to design and produce computer gadgetry.

While the benefits may not be initially obvious, such technologies could allow designers not only to design a proprietary fabric, but also to design and wire the machine that weaves it. The implications of this first-generation technology (the ultimate version is decades off) span from reviving cottage industry production in the U.S. to allowing third-world countries to become better, more technologically sophisticated suppliers, Gershenfeld believes.

“We need a means to make technology expressive, to solve the problems we want to solve rather than waiting for engineers to come up with it,” he said. “We’re realizing for about $10,000 on a desktop you can make a reasonable fraction of modern technology.”

If a designer could run up a circuit board as easily as a seam, he postulates, “that’s likely to be a significant consequence. Suddenly, they can directly shape the technical environment. We could see the sensibility of the apparel industry in leading and shaping desire and taste. Not partnering with Sony on designing a cell phone, but the designer making the cell phone him- or herself.”

During a wide-ranging interview at his MIT office here, Gershenfeld explained why the apparel industry should be thinking more broadly about design and technology.

WWD: Tell me a little about your background.

Gershenfeld: My background is in physical science but I’ve always been interested in the boundaries of information and computation. For a number of years I ran “The Things that Think” consortium here that did early work on moving computing out of computers and into the world. That led to a lot of work on wearable computers, things like computers in your shoe that can exchange data through a handshake, ways to sew circuitry into fabric and things like that. At the time those were perceived as quirky, crazy things. Now the notion of carrying around little computers certainly is a familiar story.

This story first appeared in the January 9, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WWD: What are your primary projects here?

Gershenfeld: We’re doing research here on personal fabrications — the means of making the technology we live with. The technology we live and work with is created by engineers, who think a certain way. There is a limited amount of customizing of what machines can actually do. What we’re working on now has a strong historical parallel with computers’ evolution. If you go back to the evolution of mainframes into personal computers, skilled operators used the first mainframes for limited industrial operations. When they became accessible to ordinary people, it led to personal computing and gave us the last few decades’ outpouring of creativity. The key is the use of the computer wasn’t limited to what companies thought they could do, but what people wanted them to do.

WWD: You believe we’re not tapping into technology to its fullest extent because more people don’t design it?

Gershenfeld: We live in a very technologically cluttered world. A lot of the technology we live with is very unsatisfying. One of the more interesting insights I’ve gotten is from teaching a class called “How to Make Almost Anything.” When I started teaching it, something really surprising happened. The first day I offered this class hundreds of students came begging to get in; they were desperate to know how to make things. We teach them 3-D printing of micro controller programming, how to make circuit boards, how to use the millions of dollars of industrial machinery we have in the basement. But what was interesting was what they did with the knowledge, what they wanted to make. It was amazing, quirky stuff they wanted to do.

WWD: For instance?

Gershenfeld: The first year I taught, one of the stars was a sculptor with no technical background. She made a personal, portable space for screaming.

(He plays a video, showing his student demonstrating a device resembling an oversized gourd in a crowded bus station. She bends over and soundlessly howls a primal scream into it. The sound is silenced, but then she can later play it back to “release” the scream.)

Now there isn’t a reasonable community of engineers in the world who would sit around targeting portable screaming spaces as a market opportunity, but everyone who sees it wants one. She designed the circuit board, fabricated it herself and programmed a micro-controller. She really had no technical background, but after six months [in the class] she was able to do something like that. Another student made a Web browser for parrots that lets them surf the ’Net and talk to other parrots. So what emerged from the passion students had to make things was that I began to see that this is almost a new kind of literacy. Post-digital literacy is now coming to mean making circuitry and micro-controller programming. These are means of expression.

WWD: It sounds wild. What are the practical implications?

Gershenfeld: We’re realizing for about $10,000 on a desktop you can start to approximate personal fabrication. We started setting these [mini industrial kits] up in remote parts of the world last summer. To see who cares and what this is all good for. What we found rather quickly is there is a whole range of literally life or death problems that people want to use these systems for. For instance, one lab created a device looking at impurities in milk to tell when it goes bad for childhood nutrition. Another is making a device to make patterns for embroideries, which is one of the few jobs women can do in the northeast of India. Another laboratory in the far north of Norway is making little radio tags for finding sheep in the mountains.

WWD: How might this affect the apparel industry?

Gershenfeld: A casual reading might suggest that it’s an interesting engineering story, not a WWD story. But I think it’s exactly the opposite. [The technology] overturns almost all aspects of traditional business models and raises a lot of questions about new ones. The whole business model of someone designs something and then it gets mass-produced will start to go away.

WWD: I know you spoke to executives at Amazon about the implications of these technologies on manufacturing costs. Can you give me an idea of how you see these developments affecting the supply chain?

Gershenfeld: On both sides it’s likely to make things much more local. The notion that manufacturing is done elsewhere is likely to go away. It may not leap directly from the Pacific Rim into your basement. There are a number of steps in between. The developing countries may eventually do less physical production, but it also means they can develop solutions to local problems locally. This might also significantly raise the technological food chain on what the domestic cottage industry can do.

WWD: A key challenge for the apparel industry is enabling newcomers with great ideas to put them into production. It’s tough for young designers to finance production.

Gershenfeld: It may be that this leads to a rebirth of very small-scale cottage industry where what used to be the shop that did custom sewing can now do the whole technological life cycle — fabric, packaging, jewelry. All of these things would be accessible.

WWD: Do you see these $10,000 “desktops” allowing designers to create a machine that could design a new kind of fabric?

Gershenfeld: You could do that, but much more. You could customize materials, print fabric on the fly, come up with new ways to join fabric. All of that is very much reasonable on the scale of these field labs. For instance, we’ve worked with Brother, which is now starting to make surprisingly high-performance computer-controlled sewing machines for the home. It’s starting to make advanced sewing less skill-driven. That may be the first point of intersection: a work space that has a sewing machine and all these other machines, so you can not only sew, but create all these other functions.

WWD: To me, the key is flexibility, being able to quickly invent a new tool to produce new ideas — speed and reinvention are crucial in the fashion industry.

Gershenfeld: If you think about what this means to the apparel industry, right now the way the industry works is a small number of people design prototype [garments] and then there’s this mass production and distribution machinery. Right off the bat, this [desktop systems] starts to push it backward so that the skills of the prototypers become the means of production. And you begin to significantly down-weight the whole back end of mass producers and distribution.

WWD: Some people might be skeptical about the idea of reviving local production or a cottage industry. They’d tell you companies aren’t going to stop chasing cheap labor.

Gershenfeld: I spend a fair amount of time with executives of big companies. Increasingly we’ve been talking about concepts like this. Some embrace it, some wonder what we’re doing or believe it’s not a good idea. I keep going back to the parallel of the early days of personal computers, which were seen as a waste of time or a toy. Without a doubt there are some companies who will decide it’s irrelevant or doesn’t affect their business. But someone else in a garage will decide there’s something useful to be done with it. You don’t need a whole team of marketers and lawyers and engineers to make a decision like that.