The New Scientist magazine website carries a feature on the Fab@Home project being developed by Cornell University. The Fab@Home project involves the creation of a cheap self-assembly device capable of fabricating 3D objects. The researchers, Hod Lipson and PhD student Evan Malone, hope the machine could kick start a revolution in home fabrication – by pricing the machine within reach of consumers.
Hod Lipson notes that rapid prototyping machines currently cost from US$20,000 to US$1.5 million, whereas the standard version of their Freeform fabricator can be assembled for around US$2400. But the researchers are not intending to commercialise the venture – quite the opposite in fact. Full documentation on how to build and operate the machine, along with all the software required, are available on the Fab@Home website, and all designs, documents and software have been released for free.
The article quotes Evan Malone:
“We are trying to get this technology into as many hands as possible,” Malone told New Scientist. “The kit is designed to be as simple as possible.” Once the parts have been bought, a normal soldering iron and a few screwdrivers are enough to put it together. “It’s probably the cheapest machine of this kind out there,” he adds.
It uses additive processes to create objects layer-by-layer. This involves squeezing material from a mechanically-controlled syringe. It is also designed to be used with more than one material, which is not always the case with rapid prototyping machines, even the more expensive ones. The article describes how the process has been made almost as simple as adding paper to a printer:
So far it has been tested with silicone, plaster, play-doh and even chocolate and icing. Different materials can also be used to make a single object – the control software prompts the user when to load new material into the machine.
The researchers have clearly aligned themselves with the open source approach with the Fab@Home project. They are hopeful that it will grow into a community of enthusiasts who share designs for 3D objects and even modify the machines for themselves, aiding the emergence of widespread personal fabrication.
The New Scientist Article also looks at the research being carried out on low cost rapid prototyping machines at Bath University. This research was described in an earlier post on this site. Adrian Bowyer, head of the Bath University rapid prototyping programme (the RepRap project), is complementary to the Fab@Home project. The Bath University programme also envisages machines being distributed freely, and one of their examples is even intended to replicate copies of itself.
Adrian Bowyer is quoted as saying “I can imagine people swapping plans of things to make online, or paying to download them instead of going to the shop.” This is the Long Tail of Everything made real, which Chris Anderson discussed in the final chapter of his book ‘The Long Tail‘. It was also discussed in the One Word For Many Trends article on this website in November 2006.
It is interesting that both the Fab@Home and RepRap teams have used the open source model in their projects. The big question mark which remains is whether the idea of an accessible home fabricator can generate enough momentum to become a self-sustaining community. Perhaps the best chance of success is to encourage those engaged in web and software development to try their hands at this more three-dimensional type of development. By reaching out to software developer communities, these projects may find a willing audience who will bring the lessons learned from open source software development to this new area. In fact, the Fab@Home website indicates that this approach is already being taken.
The next step for me is to study the Fab@Home website and see if I can figure out how to put one of these rapid prototyping machines together. I’m not sure how well I will get on. They say man is separated from the apes by his ability to use tools. They never thought about the blogger with a soldering iron!
See also: Reference article on digital manufacturing on this site from 2004.