Thursday, March 01, 2007

High tech DIY

An interesting story about homemade high-tech:

Ken Jones, personal fabricator.

A man in New Zealand used a $10 wok to create a television transmitter that would have cost $20,000 if bought from a manufacturer. It's an isolated case, but a great example of the kind of mentality behind personal fabbing.

From the New Zealand Herald.

Myopic foresight

"Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition."
-Dennis Gabor, British physicist and author of Inventing the Future, 1962

Resting comfortably in the present, it's easy to feel a smug sense of entitlement to the technological products in our lives. We take for granted previously unbelievable technologies like live television news broadcasts, email, and international air travel. It's easy to forget that there was a time when transatlantic journeys took several treacherous weeks, and when news traveled at the speed of horse. The challenges and uncertainties of the past that preceded this sophisticated world that we enjoy were just as real as the uncertainties we face today about our future. Hindsight is 20/20, but when we look forward, we stand the same chance of getting it right as Jules Verne - we might get the general idea, but we don't really know how current emerging technologies will manifest themselves in the coming years.

Move over, Mr. Gore...
In his novel Paris in the 20th Century, written in 1864, Jules Verne envisioned a "worldwide telegraphic communications network". Sound familiar?

Personal fabrication, in whatever forms it comes to exist, will be the result of greater developments in fabrication technology, currently cooking away in academic institutions and commercial organizations. The most exciting far-fetched predictions tell us of a Santa Claus machine, like a replicator from Star Trek, that can produce anything instantly. Anything! Lawn mowers! Ham sandwiches! Anything!

In reality, personal fabrication will begin to touch the lives of ordinary people slowly, and in several single-function ways. By its strictest definition, personal fabrication has already begun to affect our lives. Your desktop printer? That's a personal fabricator. It makes a new physical object, makes it with high levels of precision, and allows you, the user, to dictate the parameters and design of that object. The future will bring more and more control of objects in this precise, automated and customizable way. The scope of these objects will simply expand from printed sheets of paper to things like tools and furniture and electronic gadgets.

I've harped on a lot about CNC routing and cutting machines, because that's what I'm most familiar with, but also because I see immediately useful applications for it, demonstrated by the Craftsman CompuCarve, for instance. But things are moving so quickly, technologies being developed at such a speed, that we really don't know which applications of personal fabrication will take off and which will linger in obscurity.

What are some different ways that personal fabrication could affect our lives? Thermoforming is an interesting candidate. Although it's still in a very early stage, the Dishmaker is a prime example of a machine that could change the way we think of household items. The machine takes discs of plastic, thermoforms them into different shapes to serve as plates, bowls, and cups, then reforms them back into discs after use. If we look past the obvious issues that would impede the success of the prototype in its current form (complications arising from reforming dirty dishes, production time for each dish), then we can glimpse one fascinating way in which technology could take a consumer "off the grid" of manufacturing, distribution, and sales.

Dishes produced by the Dishmaker, designed and built by Leonardo Amerigo Bonanni at MIT

If dishes, or any household item, for that matter, could be produced from standard raw materials by the end user, then consumers would become the owners of autonomous, sustainable and closed systems of production. Any reason that might have previously compelled a consumer to buy new dishes (breakage, outdated or boring design, need for different sizes, etc) could be addressed by the consumer, without having to call upon the resources of an outside manufacturer.

Of course, any of these ideas might seem as laughable as earlier predictions of flying cars and meals in pill form. We won't know until the future actually arrives, but it's a lot of fun to imagine in the meantime.