how to make almost everything

Project Description:

a new digital revolution is coming, this time in fabrication. it draws on the same insights that led to the earlier
digitizations of communication and computation, but now what is being programmed is the physical world rather
than the virtual one. digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand,
wherever and whenever they need them. widespread access to these technologies will challenge traditional models
of business, aid, and education.
the roots of the revolution date back to 1952, when researchers at the massachusetts institute of technology (mit)
wired an early digital computer to a milling machine, creating the first numerically controlled machine tool. by using
a computer program instead of a machinist to turn the screws that moved the metal stock, the researchers were able
to produce aircraft components with shapes that were more complex than could be made by hand. from that first
revolving end mill, all sorts of cutting tools have been mounted on computer-controlled platforms, including jets of
water carrying abrasives that can cut through hard materials, lasers that can quickly carve fine features, and slender
electrically charged wires that can make long thin cuts.
today, numerically controlled machines touch almost every commercial product, whether directly (producing
everything from laptop cases to jet engines) or indirectly (producing the tools that mold and stamp mass-produced
goods). and yet all these modern descendants of the first numerically controlled machine tool share its original limitation: they can cut, but they cannot reach internal structures. this means, for example, that the axle of a wheel
must be manufactured separately from the bearing it passes through.
in the 1980s, however, computer-controlled fabrication processes that added rather than removed material (called
additive manufacturing) came on the market. thanks to 3-d printing, a bearing and an axle could be built by the
same machine at the same time. a range of 3-d printing processes are now available, including thermally fusing
plastic filaments, using ultraviolet light to cross-link polymer resins, depositing adhesive droplets to bind a powder,
cutting and laminating sheets of paper, and shining a laser beam to fuse metal particles. businesses already use 3-d
printers to model products before producing them, a process referred to as rapid prototyping. companies also rely on
the technology to make objects with complex shapes, such as jewelry and medical implants. research groups have
even used 3-d printers to build structures out of cells with the goal of printing living organs.
additive manufacturing has been widely hailed as a revolution, featured on the cover of publications from wired to
the economist. this is, however, a curious sort of revolution, proclaimed more by its observers than its practitioners.
in a well-equipped workshop, a 3-d printer might be used for about a quarter of the jobs, with other machines doing
the rest. one reason is that the printers are slow, taking hours or even days to make things. other computercontrolled tools can produce parts faster, or with finer features, or that are larger, lighter, or stronger. glowing
articles about 3-d printers read like the stories in the 1950s that proclaimed that microwave ovens were the future of
cooking. microwaves are convenient, but they don't replace the rest of the kitchen.
the revolution is not additive versus subtractive manufacturing; it is the ability to turn data into things and things
into data. that is what is coming; for some perspective, there is a close analogy with the history of computing. the
first step in that development was the arrival of large mainframe computers in the 1950s, which only corporations,
governments, and elite institutions could afford. next came the development of minicomputers in the 1960s, led by
digital equipment corporation's pdp family of computers, which was based on mit's first transistorized computer,
the tx-0. these brought down the cost of a computer from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of thousands.
that was still too much for an individual but was affordable for research groups, university departments, and smaller
companies. the people who used these devices developed the applications for just about everything one does now on
a computer: sending e-mail, writing in a word processor, playing video games, listening to music. after
minicomputers came hobbyist computers. the best known of these, the mits altair 8800, was sold in 1975 for
about $1,000 assembled or about $400 in kit form. its capabilities were rudimentary, but it changed the lives of a
generation of computing pioneers, who could now own a machine individually. finally, computing truly turned
personal with the appearance of the ibm personal computer in 1981. it was relatively compact, easy to use, useful,
and affordable.
just as with the old mainframes, only institutions can afford the modern versions of the early bulky and expensive
computer-controlled milling devices. in the 1980s, first-generation rapid prototyping systems from companies such
as 3d systems, stratasys, epilog laser, and universal brought the price of computer-controlled manufacturing
systems down from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of thousands, making them attractive to research groups.
the next-generation digital fabrication products on the market now, such as the reprap, the makerbot, the
ultimaker, the popfab, and the mtm snap, sell for thousands of dollars assembled or hundreds of dollars as parts.
unlike the digital fabrication tools that came before them, these tools have plans that are typically freely shared, so
that those who own the tools (like those who owned the hobbyist computers) can not only use them but also make
more of them and modify them. integrated personal digital fabricators comparable to the personal computer do not
yet exist, but they will.
personal fabrication has been around for years as a science-fiction staple. when the crew of the tv series star trek:
the next generation was confronted by a particularly challenging plot development, they could use the onboard
replicator to make whatever they needed. scientists at a number of labs (including mine) are now working on the real
thing, developing processes that can place individual atoms and molecules into whatever structure they want. unlike 3-d printers today, these will be able to build complete functional systems at once, with no need for parts to be
assembled. the aim is to not only produce the parts for a drone, for example, but build a complete vehicle that can
fly right out of the printer. this goal is still years away, but it is not necessary to wait: most of the computer
functions one uses today were invented in the minicomputer era, long before they would flourish in the era of
personal computing. similarly, although today's digital manufacturing machines are still in their infancy, they can
already be used to make (almost) anything, anywhere. that changes everything.
think globally, fabricate locally
i first appreciated the parallel between personal computing and personal fabrication when i taught a class called
"how to make (almost) anything" at mit's center for bits and atoms, which i direct. cba, which opened in 2001
with funding from the national science foundation, was developed to study the boundary between computer science
and physical science. it runs a facility that is equipped to make and measure things that are as small as atoms or as
large as buildings.
we designed the class to teach a small group of research students how to use cba's tools but were overwhelmed by
the demand from students who just wanted to make things. each student later completed a semester-long project to
integrate the skills they had learned. one made an alarm clock that the groggy owner would have to wrestle with to
prove that he or she was awake. another made a dress fitted with sensors and motorized spine-like structures that
could defend the wearer's personal space. the students were answering a question that i had not asked: what is
digital fabrication good for? as it turns out, the "killer app" in digital fabrication, as in computing, is personalization,
producing products for a market of one person.
inspired by the success of that first class, in 2003, cba began an outreach project with support from the national
science foundation. rather than just describe our work, we thought it would be more interesting to provide the tools.
we assembled a kit of about $50,000 worth of equipment (including a computer-controlled laser, a 3-d printer, and
large and small computer-controlled milling machines) and about $20,000 worth of materials (including components
for molding and casting parts and producing electronics). all the tools were connected by custom software. these
became known as "fab labs" (for "fabrication labs" or "fabulous labs"). their cost is comparable to that of a
minicomputer, and we have found that they are used in the same way: to develop new uses and new users for the
starting in december of 2003, a cba team led by sherry lassiter, a colleague of mine, set up the first fab lab at the
south end technology center, in inner-city boston. setc is run by mel king, an activist who has pioneered the
introduction of new technologies to urban communities, from video production to internet access. for him, digital
fabrication machines were a natural next step. for all the differences between the mit campus and the south end,
the responses at both places were equally enthusiastic. a group of girls from the area used the tools in the lab to put
on a high-tech street-corner craft sale, simultaneously having fun, expressing themselves, learning technical skills,
and earning income. some of the homeschool
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