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The Internet has made almost any product imaginable available anywhere in the world. But you still have to wait for it to arrive.
So if you dislike biding your time until a package shows up on your doorstep -- and who doesn’t -- you’ll welcome the advent of home fabrication. And the technology to eliminate that wait might not be right around the corner, but it is closer to reality than you probably think.
In a development that Jules Verne might have imagined, scientists have designed viable machines the size of a microwave oven that can assemble 3-D objects in your home. These home fabricators are modeled on more expensive rapid prototyping machines used by engineers and designers in creating mechanical parts and models -- machines that today cost a minimum of $25,000 and can range up to $1 million. For the consumer market, researchers have developed low-cost, build-it-yourself kits in the hopes of spurring a revolution -- in much the same way that the availability of home-computer kits spurred a consumer explosion in computing in the 1970s.
“I envision people using these to basically download blueprints off the Web and printing products at home,” says Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Computational Synthesis Lab. Along with his Ph.D. student Evan Malone, Lipson launched a project called Fab@Home, which seeks to spur the rollout of home fabricators by posting instructions on the Web. If you have a knack for gadgetry, you can assemble a standard version of their Freeform fabricator for about $2,400 in materials. That pays for such items as a motor, cables, power cords and a microcontroller board. In the future, Lipson says you’ll likely to be able to buy a fabricator ready-made to make products you desire.
“If you want a toothbrush, then you would go to the toothbrush website and download the blueprint and print the toothbrush. Maybe you would pay 99 cents to download the blueprint. There is no technological barrier for doing that today -- except for cost,” says Lipson of the future of home fab.
So how close are you to being able to manufacture a pair of sneakers at home?
“We think it’s going to be 15 or 20 years before this will be something that you can buy,” says Sherry Lassiter, program manager for the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, which operates a program called FabLab that brings industrial-grade fabricators to remote communities around the globe. “But who knows? It may be only 10 years. We definitely see it getting closer on the horizon than science fiction.”
How home fabrication works
The Fab@Home device has received an impressive 10 million downloads in just the past few months. Home fabrication enthusiasts now trade blueprints over the Internet for developing products, from hors d’oeuvres to Lego pieces to electronic circuits. The blueprints can be downloaded into the fabricators, which then follow the orders to make the object. In addition, efforts are underway to cultivate this technology at a variety of other private companies and research universities around the country -- some targeting certain types of products, such as foods.
The concept of a home fabrication machine can take many different forms. The Fab@Home model emulates a computer printer, but instead of inks, plastic and other materials are used. “One way to think about it is to imagine a color inkjet printer,” Lipson says. “Instead of printing drops of ink, it spits out droplets of plastic. Instead of three colors, there are three varieties of plastic -- maybe hard, soft and intermediate.”
To produce more complex items, the types of “cartridges” of materials could be expanded to include electrically conductive materials (for making batteries), edible materials (for making food products), and metals.
Lipson says the hardware and software schematics are all open-source. They can be licensed for free and altered, as long as users follow the guidelines. The hope is that users will improve upon the technology so that it catches on and eventually comes down in price so that it’s within reach of consumers.
Implications for mass production
The development of home fabrication will have more impact than just you being able to conveniently make products at home. “One thing is that everything could be customized, instead of being mass-produced,” Lipson says. “If you're downloading a toothbrush blueprint, there’s no need for it to be a standard toothbrush. You can go to a Web site that generates toothbrushes that can figure out the dimensions that are suitable for you and customize it in a variety of ways with different handles and grips and shapes and forms.”
The implications for global trade are staggering. Instead of mass production fueling global trade, we may see the development of a market for mass customization. Home fabrication may eliminate or bypass the need for keeping products in stock in stores or shipping them from warehouses. It also opens the doors for consumers to double as product designers.
“Now anyone can design a toothbrush,” Lipson says. “If someone has a great idea for a new grip, they can post it online, and people can download it now just like they download an MP3.”
The hope is that the result is a burst of creativity that helps improve product design -- the way open-source software has helped improve the variety available and lowered the cost of software.
Already, MIT researchers have been engaged in a project to open industrial-grade fabrication laboratories in many hard-to-reach corners of the globe -- including rural India, northern Norway, Ghana, and Costa Rica -- in addition to Boston. The group is trying “to encourage local entrepreneurs to take their own ideas from the drawing board to prototypes to starting local micro businesses,” according to its Web site. So far, projects include wireless networks to allow Norwegian shepherds to track their flocks, low-cost designs for mobile refrigeration in Ghana, and the manufacturing of replacement gears for out-of-date copying machines in India.
The killer app
Researchers believe “personal fabrication” will be an enormous phenomenon. “You can compare it to desktop publishing,” Lassiter says. “Once fabrication becomes easy enough to allow people to design and print, there will be a similar revolution.”
The question remaining is, What killer application may spur our adoption of home fabrication? Will it be the need for batteries or other consumer products? Or will it be something more basic to what you find in your kitchen -- namely, food?
Lipson says the most popular application to date of the Fab@Home do-it-yourself fabrication machines has been of an edible nature. Users are posting “recipes” for printable foods, using combinations of food materials that can be extruded from a machine -- from cheese to pesto to icing to peanut butter. “Food is a very basic need,” Lipson says. “The idea that you can download a recipe and print it may help this concept cross the geek barrier and make this whole idea accessible to many more people.”
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