Getting Started in Robotics 
Personal Fabrication



"The Dream Factory
From design to delivery, custom manufacturing is coming soon to a desktop near you"
 -- Clive Thompson, Wired, Issue 13.09 - September 2005


  In the event the online article becomes unavailable at the link below, here's an excerpt of the essential information:

"The Dream Factory...From design to delivery, custom manufacturing is coming soon to a desktop near you. Writer Clive Thompson joins the fab Lab revolution...If you could make anything you wanted, what would it be?...For me, that's not a rhetorical question, because right now I'm staring at my own personal fabricator. It's eMachineShop, an application that produces a physical 3-D copy of almost anything I draw...The concept is simple: Boot up your computer and design whatever object you can imagine, press a button to send the CAD file to Lewis' headquarters in New Jersey, and two or three weeks later he'll FedEx you the physical object. Lewis launched eMachineShop a year and a half ago, and customers are using his service to create engine-block parts for hot rods, gears for home-brew robots, telescope mounts...I'm going to test that claim. I have no experience in design and can barely draw a convincing stick figure. If I can manage to engineer a product, then he's right: Any idiot can do it...I launch eMachineShop's software and stare at the blank screen. What to make?...Then it hits me: Ever since I began playing electric guitar as a teen, I've wondered what it would be like to make my own instrument...I begin tentatively sketching shapes, using eMachineShop's box drawing tool...I click a button and up pops a lifelike 3-D view of my design. I spin it around to view it from all angles. Seeing a virtual version of each creation floating in space is very cool...The software offers me several possibilities, and each time I swap in a new material, it reprices the entire job, down to the penny. In the end, I opt to have a 3-D milling machine carve my design out of a single block of clear acrylic, with unbuffed raw aluminum for the faceplate. A guitar made of metal and Lucite: This is going to look like something beamed down from a UFO. It'll cost $880 for the two parts and take about a week to make them. Then all I have to do is snap them together and bolt on the neck, bridge, and a few electric components... finally hit the Place Order button. My design shoots off to Lewis' farm of roboticized fabrication machines...MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld calls it the fab revolution - every bit as important as the invention of the personal computer,..Eventually, he claims, you won't even need a middleman like eMachineShop, because every house will have its own personal fabricator...Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms...has shrunk the personal fabricator down to a single room's worth of off-the-shelf tools, all of which are available right now. "You can make essentially anything,"...

Gershenfeld has developed a universal theory of fabrication, plus a shopping list of what you'll need. It goes like this:...First, there are subtractive tools, devices that can cut through materials with computer-guided, down-to-the-micron accuracy.Gershenfeld opts for a $1,900 Roland CAMM-1 CX-24 sign cutter; it works like a dot matrix printer, except the head is a knife that can slice through thin sheets of materials like vinyl or copper and is thus suitable for chopping out precision circuit board elements and bendable plastic. For thicker materials, he suggests the $15,000 Epilog Legend 24TT laser cutter. It uses a 35-watt carbon dioxide laser to slice through wood and acrylic as thick as an eighth of an inch...Though the cutters sound complex, they're both guided by ordinary desktop drawing programs like CorelDraw, so "you can learn them in about an hour," Gershenfeld says. Anything you can sketch onscreen, the cutters can create, with tolerances as fine as one-thousandth of an inch. That's so exacting you can punch out 2-D shapes that simply press-fit together, like six panels to form a box. "And that's key, because it means you can move much, much faster when you're making something," he says. "In a few seconds, you can transform a two-dimensional sheet of acrylic into a three-dimensional object."...To produce even more-complex 3-D shapes, like an engine-block part, you need a different sort of subtractive tool - something that can cut up entire chunks of metal, working the way a sculptor chisels a figure out of a block of marble. Gershenfeld has a $4,500 Roland Modela MDX-20, a milling machine that uses a computer-guided drill bit that can move in three dimensions. The MDX-20 is small enough to sit on your desk and can handle materials - from plastic to light metals like aluminum and brass - with precision of up to two-thousandths of an inch...Then there are the "additive" tools, machines that fab stuff from the ground up, the way a potter or bricklayer might do. The $18,000 Formech 660 vacuum-former can take any object and mold a quarter-inch-thick sheet of hot plastic around it, quickly producing shapes like bowls or computer mouses. For more exactitude, you have the $16,500 WASP injection-molding Mini-Jector #55, which melts plastic pellets and squeezes them into a metal mold - perfect for making things like cases for electronic devices...The final group of tools consists of circuits and chips to give your creation "intelligence." Atmel AVR microprocessors cost about a buck apiece, but they're robust enough to control sophisticated robotics and can be programmed using simple languages like Python, Basic, and Logo. Roland's CAMM-1 sign cutter and Modela milling machine can quickly produce circuit boards. Pop in the chips and you're ready to go...Using this lineup of machines, Gershenfeld has set up seven "fab labs" in towns around the world: Boston's South End; Takoradi, Ghana; Solvik Gård, Norway; Pabal and Bithoor, India; Cartago, Costa Rica; and most recently Pretoria, South Africa.

Gershenfeld invokes Moore's law. He maintains that in two decades - maybe even one - the marketplace will produce a single, $1,000 device that sits on your desk and does everything one of his fab labs can. All you'll need to do is feed it raw materials, like wood, metal, and plastic. "Even microchips," he says, which are now a commodity akin to ink in a printer...In Gershenfeld's vision of the fab future, when you break the remote control to your fourth-generation TiVo, or the handle on your fridge, you won't go out and buy a new one. You'll just download the specs, put in your order, and have it fabbed at Kinko's or Home Depot. Eventually you'll just make one yourself at home...They're already living that future in a small warehouse in Emeryville, California. It's the headquarters of Squid Labs, run by a gang of five MIT alums..."Everything I own is basically one of a kind," says a cheery Saul Griffith, one of the cofounders...Today, Griffith is building a "hybrid electric bicycle"...Every few minutes, Griffith pauses to snap a photo of his progress. When done, he'll write up a comprehensive guide on how to build his project. This, he argues, is the next crucial step in fab culture: getting hobbyists to carefully document their plans and share them online. Squid Labs is hoping to kick-start such sharing this fall when it launches - an open database of interesting projects and fab techniques, "kind of like a Wikipedia for making stuff," Griffith explains. If people want to build his electric hybrid chopper bicycle, they'll be able to download the CorelDraw design of the bracket and send it someplace like eMachineShop to have their own copy printed...Griffith imagines that fab tools could produce new economic models for creators. Suppose a hobbyist made a cool plastic exterior for an MP3 player. Suppose she put the design online, and 700 people downloaded the file and had it printed at eMachineShop. "At what point," he asks, "would a manufacturer say, Hey, there's a market here - and offer to buy the design from her?"...After a week of suspense, I get an email from Lewis at eMachineShop telling me my guitar body is ready...He offers to show me how the guitar was fabbed. The eMachineShop software, he explains, includes artificial intelligence that operates like a "virtual machinist." In the background - invisible to the user - it runs a precise emulation of the real-world machines that fabricate parts, to determine whether the job is possible and how much it'll cost. He pulls up the image of my guitar and clicks a button to show me the hidden emulator...As I watch, an onscreen animation of the spinning bit on a 3-D milling machine approaches the guitar body slowly from the left side, pauses at the edge, and begins to roam diligently along the contours, adhering precisely to the curves I drew. "It makes several passes, cutting deeper each time until it gets to the specified depth," he explains. When the outer shape of the body is done, the robot grabs a smaller milling bit and deftly drills a constellation of holes in the body, where I'll be attaching the guitar neck and the electronics. Lewis points to the screen, where a timer shows that the fabrication would take 44 minutes...Now for the guitar's unveiling...I wait in a conference room while Lewis fetches it from storage. I'm still wondering whether I've produced a freakishly nasty aberration. Then the door opens and he lays it on the table...At first, I'm amazed that the damn thing even exists. I've seen it only as a virtual object, so there's something surreal about its abrupt teleportation from my imagination to reality..."

"The Dream Factory"


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Copyright © 2003 San Francisco Robotics Society of America
Last modified: Feb 14 , 2003