Editor of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson tell us that “Atom are the new bits” in what he describes as “the next industrial revolution” (1). The last few decades has been a digital revolution, the commodity is bits, tiny pieces of information. Now in the new industrial revolution we are turning those bits, that information into a product, a thing we can touch. Atoms! But how?
Less than a decade ago digital fabrication was an impossible dream for the hobbyist. Only large companies, Universities and government research agencies had access to tools that could interpret information from a data file and make that into a real touchable thing. Digital fabrication is likely to be as empowering to user as desktop publishing was in the 1990’s, desktop fabrication is set to revolutionise the way we think about what a computer can be used for.
All over the world places like the Nottingham Hackspace are starting to provide anyone who wants it, access to these sorts of tools.
Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Mill
If you can draw a graphical file on an ordinary desktop computer, the CNC machine and it’s software can interpret that file in the physical word, using a router or drill bit to create cuts and pockets on metal and wood. Shapes and holes are made in the material by very precisely controlling the position of the router head and the position of the workpiece in three dimensions, X, Y and Z or left to right, forward and back up and down. By controlling the Z access very thick materials can be cut layer by layer.
In early 2011 the Nottingham Hackspace invested in a project to develop a small CNC machine. A fabrication tool that was cheap and could be easily built by an a maker in their shed. My DIY CNC started shipping their home invented and developed CNC machines in August 2011. The small machine is available at the Nottingham Hackspace along with 2 much larger milling machine capable of cutting tougher and larger workpieces.
By positioning mirrors and lenses you can direct the beam of a powerful laser. By mounting those lenses on a similar mechanism to the CNC machine you can control where that beam of laser goes very precisely. A laser beam from a 40w laser is capable of vaporising plywood up to 6mm thick. As the laser can move very quickly and precisely and because the strength and speed can be controlled, very intricate designs can be cut in paper, card, felt and leather not to mention plywood, MDF and acrylic. We’ve even used the laser at Nottingham Hackspace to cut rice-paper for decorating a cake!
My favorite project on the laser cutter has been the creation of a tactile braille birthday card for the wife of one of the Hackers. The laser can make deep letter shapes and braille, Rocio, who is blind, will be able to feel the shapes in the plywood making it a perfect personal gift. The design was by Hackspace member Martin Raynesford
Perhaps the most futuristic and unimaginable new fabricating machine is the 3D printer. It works by using software to slice up a 3D graphic. To make that it then heats ABS plastic, squirting it out and building the object layer by layer.
Matt Lloyds’ RepRap Mendle is the unofficial 3D printer of the Nottingham Hackspace. Most of the parts of this home built machine were printed on another RepRap machine or printed as replacements on this same machine. When you start to talk about a machine that can replicate itself you can see a whole load of geeks go weak at the knee and get misty eyed at the prospect. The Nottingham Hackspace is in the process of printing parts for a new 3D printer called a RepRap Prusa named for it’s inventor.
These tools are very empowering and easy to use. With practice and a little software knowledge the ability to prototype almost anything is with in grasp of almost any boffin. Sites like THINGYVERSE.COM are a superb resource for the sharing of open source fabrication projects. Hackers love to share their intellectual property and let their designs have a life beyond that of their makers imagining.
It’s an exciting time. I can only imagine the tools that will be available in the next decade. Perhaps Star Trek like replicators are not so far in the distant future!
(1) Atoms are the new bits by Chris Anderson
Wired Magazine UK March 2010