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Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 12 News List

'Fabber' machine changes shape of things to come

An open source, low-cost machine could change manufacturing by using digital data to `print' 3D objects layer by layer


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.

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