This story is from the category Business
Date posted: 10/01/2007
The age of cheap, home fabrication and rapid prototyping WITHOUT dedicated facilities, may finally be dawning upon us. A cheap, self-assembly unit, costing little more than a new PC, has been developed by a group of US researchers, which actually has superior capabilities to many high-end commercial fabricators.
Creating any 3D shape by by depositing layer upon layer of liquid or powdered material in bonding slices ? sort of like a CAT scan in reverse ? these units enable almost any item to be manufactured, to almost any shape, with next to no material wastage, and without the need for dedicated cutting and shaping machinery
Long anticipated, due to their potential ability to completely reform the manufacturing industries, cheap, high-quality home manufacturing, and large-scale 3D printing combined, are expected to, in the near future, drop manufacturing and new prototype development costs through the floor, completely changing the manufacturing paradigm.
For now, there are many issues ? 3D printers are great at creating static shapes ? everything from a child?s D&T project to a jumbo jet engine housing ? but they are less than stellar, for the most part, at creating complex electronic, and mechanical systems in this manner ? although that too, is changing.
The Fab@Home "fabber", assembled ready for use
The new printer, a project of Hod Lipson and Evan Malone from Carnegie Mellon University, in the US, drastically drops the price of one of these commercial-quality machines from a previous price ranger of anywhere from $20,000 to $1.5 million, down to just $2400.
The standard version of their Freeform fabricator ? or "fabber" ? is about the size of a microwave oven. It can generate 3D objects from plastic and various other materials. Full documentation on how to build and operate the machine, along with all the software required, are available on the Fab@Home website, and all designs, documents and software have been released for free.
"We are trying to get this technology into as many hands as possible," Malone stated openly. "The kit is designed to be as simple as possible." Once the parts have been bought, a normal soldering iron and a few screwdrivers are enough to put it together. "It's probably the cheapest machine of this kind out there," he added.
The machine connects to a desktop computer running software that controls its operation. It then creates objects layer-by-layer by squeezing material from a mechanically-controlled syringe.
Unlike most commercial equipment, the Fab@Home machine is also designed to be used with more than one material. So far it has been tested with silicone, plaster, play-doh and even chocolate and icing. Different materials can also be used to make a single object ? the control software prompts the user when to load new material into the machine.
Malone and Lipson hope Fab@Home will grow into a community of enthusiasts who share designs for 3D objects and even modify the machines for themselves. This will prompt the emergence of widespread personal fabrication, Lipson hopes.
"We think it's a similar story to computers," he explains. "Mainframes had existed for years, but personal computing only took off in the late seventies." A cheap self-assembly computer called the Altair 8800, launched in 1975, sparked the rapid development of personal computing, he notes: "We hope Fab@Home can do the same for rapid prototyping."
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