Fab@Home:Overview

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Introduction to the Fab@Home project

Universal manufacturing embodied as today’s freeform fabrication systems has – like universal computers – the potential to transform human society to a degree that few creations ever have. The ability to directly fabricate functional custom objects could transform the way we design, make, deliver and consume products. But not less importantly, rapid prototyping technology has the potential to redefine the designer. By eliminating many of the barriers of resource and skill that currently prevent ordinary inventors from realizing their own ideas, fabbers can “democratize innovation” [1,2,3]. Ubiquitous automated manufacturing can thus open the door to a new class of independent designers, a marketplace of printable blueprints, and a new economy of custom products. Just like the Internet and MP3’s have freed musical talent from control of big labels, so can widespread RP (Rapid Prototyping) divorce technological innovation from the control of big corporations.

Despite the formidable potential of rapid prototyping technology, its acceptance over the last two decades has remained disappointingly slow [4]. At present SFF (Solid Freeform Fabrication) systems remain very expensive and complex, focused on production of mechanical parts, and used primarily by corporate engineers, designers, and architects for prototyping and visualization. These factors are linked in a vicious cycle which slows the development of the technology: Niche applications imply a small demand for machines, while small demand for machines keeps the machines costly and complex, limiting them to niche applications. Alternatively, if one could provide either a large market for SFF machines and products or a simple and cheap SFF machine with which end users could invent products and applications, then this same feedback coupling could instead drive a rapid expansion in SFF technology and applications.

Learning from the history of the computer revolution

Early home computers trying to break into home market. (a) The Honeywell Kitchen Computer cost $7000 and targeted the cooking as the ‘killer app’; (b, c) The general purpose Altair 8800, credited as starting the home computer revolution, came as a $400 kit (7)
Early home computers trying to break into home market. (a) The Honeywell Kitchen Computer cost $7000 and targeted the cooking as the ‘killer app’; (b, c) The general purpose Altair 8800, credited as starting the home computer revolution, came as a $400 kit (7)

In attempt to break the vicious cycle of expensive equipment and niche applications, there are many lessons to be learned from the rise and growth of an equivalently universal technology: The computer. The parallels between universal computation technology and universal manufacturing technologies are astounding. Though the universal computer in its modern architecture was realized in the 40’s [6], two decades passed before it reached any significant commercial acceptance. Early inventors themselves could not foresee its huge potential, famously anticipating a need “for as many as five or six machines in the US” [6]. The early commercial mainframes of the ‘60s were used mostly for niche applications such as payroll and military calculations. Like today’s rapid prototyping machines, these early mainframes cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, required hours to complete a single job, had the size of a large refrigerator and required trained technicians to operate and maintain.

Though it was clear to early manufacturers that the home market offered great potential, it was unclear how to successfully capture that market. Early attempts of the computer industry to break into the home market through niche ‘killer apps’ failed miserably: Some brands targeted niche domains such as Honeywell’s “kitchen Computer” geared towards recipes (Figure a). Its high cost and narrow application prevented it from achieving success. Though several other home computers came out in the early ‘70s [8], the MITS Altair 8800 (Figure b,c) is generally credited as sparking the home computer revolution. Designed and sold through Popular Electronics as a $400 kit ($2015 in 2005 dollars), the Alltair 8800 broke the chicken-and-egg cycle: Hobbyists and experts could now afford to dabble with computers, develop and exchange software and numerous hardware accessory projects. The availability of computers made it worthwhile to write software, and the availability of software made it worthwhile to buy computers. Computer history had entered its exponential growth era.

Based on this history, it seems reasonable to imagine a low-cost multi-material SFF system in one’s home, which could produce objects or even complete integrated devices from designs which are shared or purchased online [3]. Should such systems become as available as personal computers or printers are today, the invention and personalization of small devices could become as ubiquitous as music sharing is today. MIT’s FabLab project [1] provides ample evidence that providing people with automated fabrication tools serves as an innovation catalyst; ordinary folk, with seemingly no technical background quickly learn to exploit these tools to design and realize new inventions. The only thing now missing is the low cost, hackable rapid prototyper kit.

Goal of this project

Inspired by this history, the goal of this project is to offer an personal SFF system, which we call “Fab@Home”. The aim of this project is to put SFF technology into the hands of those same curious, inventive, and entrepreneurial citizens. In addition, through this Wiki web site we hope to inspire users of Fab@Home to exchange their ideas for applications and their improvements to the hardware and software with us and each other. Several machines are already in use.

What to do next?

If you are interested in learning more about Fab@Home, you might want to:

Bibliography

  1. Burns M., (1995) The Freedom to Create, in Technology Management, Volume 1, Number 4 http://www.ennex.com/~fabbers/publish/199407-MB-FreedomCreate.asp
  2. Gershenfeld N., (2005) FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop – From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Basic Books http://cba.mit.edu/projects/fablab/
  3. Lipson H. (2005) "Homemade: The future of Functional Rapid Prototyping", IEEE Spectrum, feature article, May 2005, pp. 24-31 http://www.mae.cornell.edu/ccsl/papers/Spectrum05_Lipson.pdf
  4. Bowyer A., RepRap: The Replicating Rapid-Prototyper, http://reprap.org
  5. Wohlers T., (2006), Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing State of the Industry, Wohlers Assoc. http://www.wohlersassociates.com/
  6. Ceruzzi P.E., (2000) A History of Modern Computing, The MIT Press
  7. Klein E.S., Vintage Machines, http://www.vintage-computer.com/altair8800.shtml
  8. Blinkenlights Archaeological Institute, http://www.blinkenlights.com/pc.shtml
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