When I last visited a vendor in China, we oohed and aahed over a Stratsys rapid protoyping machine, or fabricator, that happened to be sitting in a corner of the conference room we met in. It was a large machine, about 6′ x 4′ x 3′ and caught our attention when we saw a small object it produced. It was a threaded shaft, with a bolt type cap on both ends. In the middle, threaded onto the shaft, was a nut. The object was all one piece so we puzzled over how exactly the machine created it since it seemed as though one of the bolt caps would have to be removed to screw on the nut. These devices are also referred to as 3-D printers, and that gives you a better idea of how they actually work. You feed in blueprints and out comes the object. It was immediately clear how useful this machine could be since a common source of problems communicating with Chinese vendors is the Americans’ inability to realize that the vendor’s frame of reference is a different culture, while the Chinese tend to take every single instruction literally. The ability to make a prototype quickly, cheaply, and accurately would avoid a lot of problems. In essence, you could email actual products. I don’t recall exactly how much the prototyper cost, but I was left thinking it was around $1mm.
Earlier this month, New Scientist magazine had a story about a kit for a desktop fabricator, or fabber. The instructions and software necessary to build the device are available free from the Fab@Home project at Cornell University. The kit can be assembled for around $2,400 and is all open source. Hod Lipson of Fab@Home said, “We think it’s a similar story to computers. Mainframes had existed for years, but personal computing only took off in the late seventies.” Referring to how the Altair 8800 spurred the development of the personal computer, he said, “We hope Fab@Home can do the same for rapid prototyping.”
We talk a lot about user generated content and how the “new creatives” are expressing themselves through blogs, podcasting, and videos. In short order we may see the same revolution occur with physical objects. When people can design and produce their own objects, from toys to jewelry, email them to friends and offer them for sale online, we’ll have moved into a new creative generation. Opportunities will be created to “sell picks to the miners.” Businesses could sell software for particularly sophisticated projects, special materials, or marketing services to the new entrepreneurs. Manufacturers could find their products reverse engineered and improved with the replacement or addition of parts. The usual legal issues will follow as well. Can I fabricate a patented item on my desktop fabber? If it’s for my own personal use? If it’s for the use of my family too? What about a few friends as well?
(Not quite as convenient as a desktop fabber, but still pretty convenient, is eMachineShop.com, an online machine shop. eMachineShop allows you to “instantly design, price and order your custom parts online!” )
[Update: See comment for an even cheaper fabber.]