18 October 2010

Reprap, Open-source, and liger jokes

This blog hasn't been on my mind too much what with moving from state to state, but I think what I'm getting into now will provide an awful lot of material.

I ordered a Thing-O-Matic from Makerbot Industries...

...yes, that's a little robot building parts for another robot all night, by itself. Now, some background.

Dr. Adrian Bowyer decided it would be awesome if machines could reproduce themselves. This was probably because he lived very far away from Hollywood. The first step was to figure out a way for ideas to be turned directly into useful objects. Technically, that "way" already existed (rapid prototyping) but it was way too expensive and the machines were covered in parts they couldn't make themselves.

Instead of doing the proper academic thing and writing a theoretical paper, he built an absurdly low-cost 3D printer and released all the details under an open-source license. [video is a bit long, especially if you watch the second half]

Well now his project is spawing all sorts of new innovations. The one I choose to participate in is called Makerbot Industries. These guys are absurdly enthusiastic about the technology, which is great, but they also concur with Dr. Bowyer's commitment to open-source hardware.

It's mostly an intuition at the moment, but I think the combination of cheap personal fabricators and the open-source philosophy will be a disruptive innovation. Just spend a day looking around and keep track of how many things you use are nothing more than shapped plastic. Now imagine one or more of them broken. What would you do? If it's a replaceable part you could find it at a store, if you're desperate and lucky you could order a new one, but most likely there's no way to fix or replace that plastic part...and if there is it's probably not worth the time. But what if you could just print out a replacement? Lost your lense cap, print a new one. Broke a knob on an appliance, print a new one. Need a connector that Lego never manufactured, print it.

That is where the idea starts to take hold. Then the odds are good that at some point in your life you've thought of a little thingamajig that would make your life better. Maybe a clever book mark, or a perfectly shaped tooth/fingernail pick, or a liger ring for your niece because she loves ligers and no one makes liger rings. Well, with a personal fabricator you're, like, minutes away from those ideas. Literally in the time it takes the little brat munchkin to stop crying you can print out a Master Chief action figure...and then print out a liger ring.

Now you're not limited to making that song or newsletter or ball-kicking video a reality; now you can actually make physical things from your imagination into real things. And that's just for the developed world, where we think Maslow's Hierarchy is a progressive rock band. The rest of the world can get a printer and some bulk raw material (maybe even grow it themselves) and make exactly what they need exactly when they need it.

Basically, the potential here reminds me of a joke I heard a while back that I can't attribute to anyone. If you lived in the Star Trek universe, would you spend your time getting infected by alien plagues, or would you spend your time on the holodeck living out your fantasies, replicating food, and transporting your waste somewhere else?

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