David Mellis Dissertation Defense

July 9, 2015


MIT Media Lab, E14-633


Many domains of DIY (do-it-yourself) activity, like knitting, woodworking, and cooking, combine useful products with individual creativity. With today’s electronics, it’s difficult to combine these two values. The devices we use are mass-produced with little involvement from the vast majority of people. The electronics we make as individuals are built mostly with toolkits and other prototyping processes that aren’t well suited to extended use. Digital fabrication, of both electronic circuit boards and enclosures, offers new possibilities for individuals to both make and use electronic products.

This dissertation investigates the possibilities for the personal fabrication of electronic products. It builds on prior work that illustrated the design space and best practices for this approach. Here, the focus is on three deeper questions: (1) How far can the personal fabrication of electronic products go, as practiced by experts? (2) How can experts structure workshops and other resources to engage new audiences in the personal fabrication of electronic products? (3) What is the value provided by the personal fabrication of electronic products (for both experts and novices)? These questions are explored through two investigations. The first is a DIY cellphone, a device that I’ve designed and used over the course of multiple years. By teaching workshops and posting instructions online, I’ve also helped others to make their own phones. The second investigation is a six-week workshop in which participants designed their own internet-connected devices, building on my examples.

These investigations reveal the ability of personal fabrication to serve as a robust means of making devices for use in daily life, but with many limitations and constraints imposed by the commercial ecosystem surrounding this DIY practice. The DIY cellphone shows the importance of timely examples in motivating new people to participate in the personal fabrication of electronic products. The connected devices workshop demonstrates the necessity of a general familiarity with—but not an expertise in—circuits and code for the successful design and fabrication of custom electronic circuits. It also highlights the importance of in-person support for two crucial aspects of this process: defining projects and debugging circuits. Finally, the two investigations reveal multiple values for the personal fabrication of electronic products. These include the ability to make devices that wouldn’t otherwise exist and the creation of integrated prototypes for extended testing and use. More importantly, they demonstrate that a personal fabrication approach can support individuals in understanding and questioning the electronic products in their lives.

Host/Chair: Mitchel Resnick


Leah Buechley, Björn Hartmann

Additional Related Projects

(Unpublished) DIY Cellphone

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