on Nov 8, 2007
Remember the 3d sugar printer I wrote about a few months ago? No? Fine. No big deal. But this is even better: Fab at Home, Open-Source 3D Printer, Lets Users Make Anything! As long as you understand that “anything” in this case means “any solid freestanding object of homogenous materials” then this is pretty cool. It has the same goal: Take any arbitrary 3d mesh you design on your computer and realize it as a physical object.
The sugar-based method was cool, although a major drawback was that you needed a huge bin full of sugar and the resolution wasn’t very good. Here the resolution looks to be much finer, and it requires a lot less raw material. The downside here is that you have to build stuff capable of standing upright during production. (A coffee mug shape wouldn’t work, because the handle would fall off during fabrication.)
I don’t quite share the excitement of the inventors, who think there will be one of these in every household someday – in the kitchen no less – and are talking about how the device could aid in space exploration. These guys are indeed inventive, but the idealism meter is pegging right now. At one point a guy explains that they don’t think of the machine as a product. They have released the blueprints so that “anyone” can make one. That’s nice, but it sort of misses the point. If it’s not a product, how then will we get one into every kitchen? I’m very sure my mom isn’t about to whip out a soldering iron and make one herself:
If you don’t turn your idea into a product, but instead release the design for everyone, then one of two things will happen:
- The only people who own a device will be those who understand the schematics, know where to get the parts, know how to assemble them, and who have the time and the willingness to do so.
- Someone else will turn it into a product instead of you, so that people who don’t meet the above criteria can own one.
I don’t know why they don’t want to make this into a product. Maybe they, like me, hate the tedious details of running a business and would rather get back to the lab. I can understand that. Maybe they would be thrilled if Epson came along and started mass-producing appliances based on their design and selling them. But maybe they really think that selling the machine would be wrong because “it’s a simple idea” and it would be wrong to profit from it. (What with information wanting to be free and all.) But this isn’t why people buy products. I didn’t buy a coffee pot because the device is beyond my understanding. I bought one because I have better things to do with my time than shop for parts and put them together.
I could see wanting to play around with a Fab at Home machine and churning out various objects. (It would be a great way to make miniatures, roleplaying dice, and other amusing items.) But I can’t ever see building one myself. I’d just as soon pay someone else to do that for me. That “someone else” can make things easier on themselves if they make several at a time and sell them to people like me. If they are going to sell a lot, it might make sense for them to come up with a process to mass-produce the device, which makes each one cheaper and easier to build. Of course, in order to do that they’ll need employees to acquisition the parts, run the assembly line, put the things into boxes, and ship them to customers. They’ll need some managers to make sure those people work together properly. They’ll also need someone to do the accounting. And while they are at it, why not add a marketing department? There are probably lots of people out there who would buy one if they better understood how they could benefit from the machine. (And the first thing that marketing will tell you is that you do not call your device “Fab at Home”. Let’s call it the “Fabber”.)
Not necessarily speaking to the Fab @ Home guys, but to idealistic engineers in general: I like you open source guys, I really do. But products exist for a reason, and it’s not because I’m brainwashed by corporations. I buy stuff because I’d rather pay people to build stuff for me than try to build it myself. (This applies to operating systems as well. No, especially operating systems.) If the only people who owned tools were the ones capable of building the tools for themselves… well, there would be a lot less useful stuff in the world. It would create a sort of priesthood where only engineers are capable of getting their hands on the best tools. Note that this would do a great job of keeping tools out of the hands of a lot of eager artists.
Yes, some companies are run by idiots or jerks. Yes, our patent system is hopelessly broken and vigorously abused. But the process of streamlining production, building products, and selling them to people is an admirable thing that benefits everyone. Again, I don’t know where the Fab-at-Home guys are coming from. Maybe they would be just fine with a large company coming in and making some Fabbers for sale. Maybe they would view it as someone “stealing” their idea. I hope it’s the former.
Because I could use a Fabber.
In glossy black.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.