Dean Irvine from CNN Online reports in a recent article on a new project, Fab@Home, that wants to provide a machine that can make anything, even itself -- and this in the comfort of your home. What sounds like the dream of a science fiction author is a device developed at Cornell University by Hod Lipson, Assistant Professor at Cornell's Computing and Information Science department, and Evan Malone, a PhD student.
Lipson and Malone's machine is different to conventional rapid manufacturing technologies in several reasons: First, it can use a number of materials, from plastics to metals with a low melting point. "This makes them useful for making parts or components, but not for making complete systems. We're aiming to make integrated systems, including circuitry and sensors," Lipson is quoted in the article.
Second, the machine is not a proprietary technology, but open source machinery.
DIY fabbers have been able to download plans on how to make their own Fab@Home devices from the web site and are able to build it using off-the-shelf components for around $2000, or buy a kit for $3,000. The machines can then be run from software on a desktop computer. Unsurprisingly the current model is more rudimentary than professional rapid prototyping machines.
Lipson: "Since the machine has been out there people have been experimenting with all sorts of materials including food. We've seen a lot of chocolate, cheese and peanut butter-based creations. This might not be the way the machine is used in the future, but it just goes to show how adaptable and open the creative impetus it is."
Lipson thinks that digital fabrication is currently in a similar situation to that of computers in the 1960s, but instead of kits in the hands of enthusiasts and boffins, the fabbing machines can be developed by creatives across the world thanks to the Internet, freeware and open source software.
"It's a project that will be perfected and improved thanks to the online community of designers and creatives. Getting it into the hands of the people is very important. All the software and components are open source so can be changed or modified according to what people want," he said.
While the machine still is in its early stages of development, the article comments on the potential impact of such a machine. This discussion fits into the vision of user manufacturing. In some quotes in the article, I am saying (please excuse this shameless act of self-promotion):
Piller: "It's hard to say if [Fab@home] will be in everyone's home in the next 20 years. It might follow the same trajectory as the laser printer. Who predicted that nearly every home would have one of them 20 years ago? What is certain is that in the long run it's sure to transform the manufacturing process, big companies won't have to focus so much on economies of scale. ... [For consumers], you won't have to wait for products. It will be similar to being your own publisher online, but with an enormous scope of what you can produce."
And how about replicating some Prada shoes or Aquascutum cuff links, Irvin asks in his article. Well, just look on Google Sketch-up and its repository of 3D designs. you will find an amazing number of reverse engineered IKEA furniture here.
"Already people are customizing designs of existing products, like Ikea furniture, using designs tools and these types of machines. It's small scale now, but if this becomes big, then Ikea are going to step in and say:'Hey, you can't customize our designs.' [But] if they're smart then they'll put these machines in their stores," said Piller.
And the basic idea of the IKEA business model of self assembly would become one of self-design (modification) and self production.
Read the full article here: http://edition.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/04/26/fs.fabmachine/
Context: - The CNN article refers to a fabbed ladies shoe that is wrongly credited to my group. I wrote about the first laser sintered shoe in this blog, but its inventors and designers are Marc van der Zande from TNO Science and Industry and Sjors Bergmans from Concept Design who developed the shoe in a joint EU-funded project called CEC-made shoes.
- Another nice article about the project.