Hod Lipson would like you to make stuff at home rather than go shopping. As assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, he reckons that home manufacturing will spearhead a revolution -- one that is presently at the same stage, he thinks, as personal computing was 30 years ago, when obsessive hobbyists were soldering parts to make PCs. If he is proven right, even Apple iPods might one day be produced by a "fabber" sitting on your kitchen table.
Creativity is a uniquely human trait, but Lipson is driven by the idea of allowing machines to do design and manufacturing for us. Several years ago, he worked on a theoretical project involving the automatic design of robotic lifeforms. But his computer program was far too clever.
"It came up with designs that we couldn't actually make. One of the things I wanted to do was create a machine that would eliminate these constraints," Lipson said.
The fictional replicator used in Star Trek: The Next Generation makes everything from a glass of water to spare parts. In the real world, we have "rapid prototyping," a 20-year-old technology that can "print" objects from digital designs.
Costing thousands of US dollars, these 3D printers have movable nozzles which deposit quick-setting plastic in layers -- ideal for making small parts or design mock ups.
Lipson has now created the Fab@Home machine for anyone to build for a cost of around US$2,300.
His "fabber" uses off-the-shelf parts and was designed by Evan Malone, a doctoral candidate in Lipson's computational synthesis laboratory.
The machine is slower and lacks fine detail compared to commercial machines. But that's OK, Lipson said: "Our goal in the Fab@Home project was to see if we can make a machine to handle multiple materials. I believe that making it accessible to many people will really bootstrap the potential of the technology."
His plans are freely available at fabathome.org, which is getting 20,000 hits a day. By offering construction hints, ideas and discussion groups, he's actively and openly encouraging participation.
The Fab@Home is driven by programs that run on your computer -- ideal for school, university or hobby projects.
So what has he made with his Fab@Home? Pushing the boundaries beyond simple shapes, Lipson has made a working battery, an electrically-activated polymer muscle and a touch sensor by printing different layers of material. His goal is to make a small robot with limbs, actuators, control circuitry and batteries.
The possibilities are limited by what you can extrude from interchangeable cartridges -- quick-hardening plastic is the favorite, but the machine can also handle and layer plaster, Play-Doh, silicone, wax and metals or mixtures with a low melting point such as solder.
Some users have used chocolate, cheese and cake icing, which may also be used as a temporary soluble support material for hollow structures.
"I think the first application area will be toys," Lipson said. "People would like to download and share action figures."
The popularity of tabletop gaming figures like Warhammer might be enhanced with a fabber. You'd simply pay for the design on the internet and print it. And as the technology developed, creating and sharing your own designs might be possible, too.
Either way, it'd be manufacturing at home rather than buying from a shop.
A Fab@Home loaned by Lipson will be on view at London's Science Museum from May 22 until January 2009. Part of the Evolving Plastics exhibition to celebrate the centenary of Bakelite -- the first fully man-made plastic -- visitors will see the Fab@Home close-up and watch a time-lapse video of objects being made.
"Rapid manufacturing has profoundly massive implications for the way we make things. It changes everything, it changes the designs that you do," said Richard Hague, who heads the rapid manufacturing research group at Loughborough University.
Hague was very practical at school, enjoying the challenge of taking things to pieces and, mostly, putting them back together again. Following an uninspiring spell in the oil and gas industry, he then studied for a doctorate in rapid prototyping and hasn't looked back.
Conventional manufacturing requires either machining away a block of material or forming the part in a mold. And as any manufacturer will confirm, "tooling up" is incredibly expensive. Rapid manufacturing techniques use digital data to make the part additively, laying down layers of material that do not need a mould -- just like Lipson's Fab@Home.
"It's extremely Heath Robinson but it's great and it will spark people's imaginations," Hague said.
There are examples of additive manufacturing for consumer items that do away with moulds.
Hague said that some hearing aids are made using a laser sintering process after scanning a wax impression of the ear canal. More exotic applications include components for jet fighters and racing cars.
"We are so locked into a conventional way of designing parts for manufacturing, it's difficult to change. This is quite a buzz area, and so it should be as it takes away the high labor cost," Hague said.
Could a machine like the Fab@Home make copies of itself? Adrian Bowyer, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at Bath University, is working on the RepRap -- a practical self-copying 3D printer. His replicating rapid-prototyper also works by printing layers and has even made some of its own parts.
"Hod [Lipson] is trying to work with a wider range of materials than RepRap and, like we do, he is open sourcing everything. His idea is to have a machine that is very low cost and is open, but that is sold in a conventional marketplace either whole or as a kit," Bowyer said.
If these technologies take off, it may spark a new industrial revolution.
"In 1975, people were soldering together Altair 8800 computers -- that's where RepRap and Fab@Home are now. The Apple II came out in 1977, the BBC Micro and IBM PC in 1981 and then the world was never the same," Bowyer said.
"I think that within 10 years private individuals will be able to make for themselves virtually any manufactured product that is today sold by industry," he said. "I sometimes wonder if politicians realize that the entire basis of the human economy is about to undergo the biggest change since the invention of money."
In that case, fabbing won't just break the mold -- it will throw it away entirely.
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