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Breaking the mould

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- (First published April 26, 2007)

A machine for the home that can make anything, even itself, sounds like the dream of a science fiction fan, but a device using open source software developed at Cornell University has been designed to do just that.

It is in the early stages of development, but could it represent the dawn of the arts and crafts movement for the digital age or open the gateway to the destruction of intellectual property rights and copyright?

Hod Lipson, Assistant Professor at Cornell University's Computing and Information Science department and PhD student Evan Malone are the brains behind the digital fabrication machine.

It takes its technological cues from rapid prototyping machines that for over 20 years have been used by design and manufacturing industries to quickly produce components or simple items.

These machines "print" 3D objects from blueprints on a computer by building up a number of layers.

Lipson and Malone's machine is different in that it can use a number of materials, from plastics to metals with a low melting point, unlike the current rapid prototyping machines that tend to use just quick drying plastics.

"This makes them useful for making parts or components, but not for making complete systems. We're aiming to make integrated systems, including circuitry and sensors," Lipson told CNN.

If it looks a bit home made, that's because it is. DIY fabbers have been able to download plans on how to make their own Fab@Home devices from the web site and are able to build it using off-the-shelf components for around $2000, or buy a kit for $3,000.

The machines can then be run from software on a desktop computer. Unsurprisingly the current model is more rudimentary than professional rapid prototyping machines.

So far Lipson has made working batteries using his Fab@Home machine and believes he and Malone will use the technology to build a fully working proof-of-concept robot within three years.

Perhaps the real innovation is the democratization of the development process.

"Since the machine has been out there people have been experimenting with all sorts of materials including food. We've seen a lot of chocolate, cheese and peanut butter-based creations. This might not be the way the machine is used in the future, but it just goes to show how adaptable and open the creative impetus it is," said Lipson.

"You do need to be fairly skilled to put these things together" Frank Pillar, Professor of Management at Aachen University and expert on open innovation told CNN.

"It's a bit like when cars were first invented, you needed a mechanic to put it together."

At the heart of the project then is customization and harnessing the creativity and talent of these DIY fabbers.

"It's not technology that will replace existing manufacturing process, but is more likely to augment it, by doing things that current techniques can't do," Lipson told CNN.

Lipson thinks that digital fabrication is currently in a similar situation to that of computers in the 1960s, but instead of kits in the hands of enthusiasts and boffins, the fabbing machines can be developed by creatives across the world thanks to the Internet, freeware and open source software.

"It's a project that will be perfected and improved thanks to the online community of designers and creatives. Getting it into the hands of the people is very important. All the software and components are open source so can be changed or modified according to what people want," said Lipson.

"It's hard to say if it will be in everyone's home in the next 20 years. It might follow the same trajectory as the laser printer. Who predicted that nearly every home would have one of them 20 years ago? What is certain is that in the long run it's sure to transform the manufacturing process, big companies won't have to focus so much on economies of scale," said Piller.

"You won't have to wait for products. It will be similar to being your own publisher online, but with an enormous scope of what you can produce." How about replicating some Prada shoes or Aquascutum cuff links?

A team led by Marc van der Zande for TNO Science and Industry in the Netherlands recently created a pair of ladies shoes from their own laser-sintering machine, so the potential for home fabbers to cobble together an identical pair luxury goods like the latest Ray-Band sunglasses or Manolo Blahnik shoes is possible if the technology develops.

"Already people are customizing designs of existing products, like Ikea furniture, using designs tools and these types of machines. It's small scale now, but if this becomes big, then Ikea are going to step in and say:'Hey, you can't customize our designs.' If they're smart then they'll put these machines in their stores," said Piller.

"There are important issues of intellectual property rights and copyright involved here and the debate and furore over it could make the mp3 issue look like a piece of cake," said Lipson.

Not literally of course, although perhaps with an advanced fabbing machine, it might happen. For companies wanting to protect their brand and products adopting these machines and giving customers the option to customize to their own specifications could be the way to go.

Lipson believes that companies providing specialized or high-end products might have a fabbing room in their shops where customers can adapt products to their own tastes or needs.

"For example they're perfect for hardware store, where tools or components could be made to any size from any type of material. Just bring along a printed design, or adapt the shops selection and it could be made for you on the spot," he told CNN.


Could this innocuous-looking acrylic box be the forefather of machines that can make literally anything?

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