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Fab at Home

By Shamus
on Thursday Nov 8, 2007
Filed under:


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Comments (39)

  1. Telas says:

    Fabbed Post.

    I agree with you about the “idealistic engineers”. A friend was going on about how software can’t be patented, and I started to wonder “Who’s going to write games/apps/etc, if you can’t charge for them?”

  2. Rich says:

    I can see having something like this in a lot of homes. But I’m pretty sure this is a few iterations away from the one we’ll ultimately get. I’d call this “2 steps from the Model T of final 3D printer that everyone will own”.

  3. Dan says:

    Uh, I dont think I need to build a printer to produce squished chocolate. I can just leave a tootsie roll in the toaster oven.

    It definitely looks to be in prototype stage. Not sure why I’d need to build a non-standard, hunched over battery when I can buy one at Wal-Mart. I also wonder how much the watch-band print-on-demand market is really driving this…

    Wow, I must have bitten hard into a snark sandwich today.

  4. While I agree that nobody has yet made a true “non-product product”, there’s a growing underground scene of hardware that anybody can build for themselves. Several kinds of kit have always been like that – mostly people build them for themselves, but some people set themselves up as a little production house that cranks out assembled electronics kits, or plastic model kits, or whatever, for people who haven’t the time or skills to build them themselves.

    One excellent example of this, at the moment, is headphone amplifiers. There are a variety of little mint-tin amp designs out there that you can make for yourself or buy pre-built from some dude on eBay. I see no reason why “open” fabs couldn’t be the same.

    (This is also, of course, the way ALL “high tech” manufacturing worked before the advent of the production line.)

    If and when fabs really take off and there are 50 different eBay stores selling handmade models to the early adopters, then some company like Epson will probably make a commercialised model that’ll cost a lot less. Then it’ll be difficult for the hand-builders to compete, unless of course they live in a country where ten bucks a day is good money.

    The situation being envisaged by the free-fab people is more like “distributed prototyping” than true distributed manufacturing. But we already know that this works just fine, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t work on a considerably larger scale than it does at the moment.

    (Note also that old-fashioned “piecework” manufacturing, where workers assemble kits of parts at home and get paid when they bring the finished item back to the “factory”, does still exist today.)

  5. Martin says:

    Can someone just print me a 3D printer and mail it?


  6. Phlux says:

    The difference between this product and the candy-fab machine is that the sugar medium was laid down as a sheet across the entire bed. Then it was lowered and another layer placed, etc. This was slower, but it allowed you to build objects that were non-continugous and non-freestanding.

    Most fabricators use a similar method. There’s a small desktop fabricator coming out soon that is being sold for 5000 dollars. It can build I think a 6×6 inch area at sub milimeter resolution.

    You just fill the thing with this powdery medium, and then it lays down what is essentially super glue in thin layers. The powder will support the material until it’s completed, at which point you blow it out with compressed air. The only downside to this approach is that hollow objects need an outlet to remove the powder, otherwise it will be trapped inside. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but in some cases it will.

    The powder is then reusable, I think. You’re just supposed to run it through a flour sifter to get any particles out of it and keep it from getting clumpy.

  7. Nothing says:

    Telas when software engineers talk about “software patents” they are talking about patenting concepts not games. Imagine if when Quake came out ID software patented the first person shooter. It’s obvious that ID would hold the copyright for the Quake line of games but the video game industry would be much duller if ID was the only company that could write a first person shooter. Software patents run counter to the industry.
    -my 2 cents

  8. Erm . . . looking slightly deeper into their website, I notice here:

    that these Koba industries dudes are in fact already willing to sell you one. So your questions about whether it’s OK with them if someone sells it as a product become kinda moot–someone is, and they’re sufficiently OK with that to mention it on their project website.

    But I think their analogy with early computers is well taken. I remember when I got one of the very first Radio Shack TRS-80 computers, before Apple existed, when the idea of IBM making a *personal* computer would have seemed ludicrous, I was aware that there had been kits and hobbyist put-stuff-together people experimenting for a while. Those hobbyist experimenters created the community and in many ways the concepts that drove the release and success of the earliest ready-made computers like the Commodore and the Trash-80. The concept of open source didn’t exist at the time, so the designs and concepts pioneered by openly co-operating hobbyists were readily closed up by corporations when it looked like a buck could be made.

    Similarly, the GNU project and Linux were started by hobbyists and students, and the software they made was initially pretty creaky. But people kept co-operatively improving it, and nowadays, Linux runs half the web, most of the world’s supercomputers, oodles of servers, routers, cell phones, home electronics, and even an increasingly decent number of actual computer desktops. It’s a long way from the origins. But because the people who started it off were clever enough to come up with the concept of Free Software, hobbyists and other people with new ideas but no money can *still* grab a copy of Linux and most of the software that runs on it, and tweak it to do what they want it to (or simply to be usable in their too-small-to-be-profitable language).

    So here we have one of the most significant areas of future technology, and I’m damned glad someone is working on it open source style–because otherwise, in the end we’ll have some megacorp owning all the rights, selling the machines for a bundle with a ton of Digital Rights Management that will stop anyone from using it to make non-approved designs.

    Frankly, this perhaps the post of yours I’ve respected the least. What exactly is so wonderful about slagging people *because* they are idealistic? Anyone who doesn’t realize there are serious problems with the way the world works is a fool, so there’s nothing wrong with cynicism in that sense. Anyone who, having realized that, is against doing things any better is an ass.

  9. Jol says:


    $3,600 delivered isn’t really that much further within reach for most consumers than $10,000. The product is still in the gimmick stage, and needs a killer app to launch it.

  10. Longhair says:

    That’s awesome.

    However, using a sugar base as 3D medium will put the hard-working Doozers living behind Doc’s wall out of work.

    I do hope they’re unionized.

  11. I hate to possibly feed yet another IP war, but Telas, very few people argue against copyrighting software; I can safely say that’s a marginal position. Software is the only thing I know of that is protected both by patents and copyright; it shouldn’t be surprising that clumsily brining these two systems together, which were never designed to work together, results in a mess. My own lengthy treatment on the topic, to save this comment space.

    To tie it back in to the subject at hand, what happens when physical objects are just manifestations of software? The exact same problem, only in reverse.

    And on another point, back to Shamus: These things are only really interesting if they are the beginning of a trend, not the end. The ideal is to get the point where a printer can print a printer. You get progressive benefits as it becomes easier and easier for a printer to at least print the bulk of the next printer, progressively minimizing the amount of material needed from a traditional factory to make your printer. Their opinions are only comprehensible when viewed with this idea in mind; they want to create open-source generalized printers, and this is just the first step. If this were the last step, you’re totally right and their attitude would be very counterproductive.

  12. Telas says:

    Nothing: I’m pretty sure the folks I’ve spoken to were against any kind of software patent, period. Which makes no sense at all to this Economics graduate.

    But I’m diverting traffic again…

  13. Matt Norwood says:

    Purple Library Guy above makes some good points, Shamus, but even he misses the glaring misconception that seems to fuel your discontent: before our current overreaching copyright and patent laws created a deadlock of monopolies in high tech, it was actually possible to innovate without getting sued. It happened through something called the “free market”. It was one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism and capitalism.

    Free software and open hardware design has many different goals, but one is to bring back the idea of /competition/ to the manufacture and marketing of technological goods. If I can make things more efficiently than you, I should win in the marketplace; you shouldn’t be able to sue me out of business because you have a monopoly (granted by copyright or patent laws) on a given technology.

    These guys have set up a model whereby anyone can start a company making and selling these printers. That way, efficiency and compentence — not a government-enforced monopoly — will dictate who we buy these things from.

    I do agree with PLG that this seems to be a big blind spot in your view of the high tech sector. Things are changing, big-time. You really should try to get hip to what’s happening, for the sake of your career and your reputation.

    By the way, what web server are you using to serve this web content? The HTTP headers tell me it’s Apache. I encourage you to sit down and think for a while about how a bunch of guys with, in your worldview, no incentive to create this software managed to make the best web server software on the market. You might just question some of your naive assumptions about how innovation and markets work.

  14. Alex Ponebshek says:

    There’s no reason a product can’t be both open and commercial. If these guys are willing to take on the role of inventing the awesomeness, but want to delegate the role of manufacture and sale to someone else, they are still doing a large portion of the work towards you getting your awesomeness. You should be praising them, not complaining that they don’t want to sell it themselves. The fact that they are calling it open-source means they won’t be accusing others of stealing their idea (like the companies you praise do).

    I’m not sure if your operating system comment is meant to imply that open-source operating systems require assembly, but if so, it doesn’t really make sense. I’ve put beginner Windows users in front of a fresh installation of Ubuntu, and they got along just fine (albeit after I answered a few simple questions, like where to find the applications, how to install stuff, and where the control panel is).

  15. Evilmatt says:

    For 3d printers I prefer reprap http://www.reprap.org/bin/view/Main/WebHome
    it stands for Replicating Rapid-prototyper.

    Similar to fab at home in that it’s an FDM machine that uses low temperature thermoplastic but it’s ultimate goal is to be self replicating so you’ll be able to print out the printer on itself. It’s target price is lower than fab at home at a few hundred. It’s still very much in the tinkering stage but getting closer to when you can buy the kit.

  16. rmg says:

    while I acknowledge the possible relation between this post and your recent caffeine post, I think you missed one thing.

    Engineers are different than regular consumers.

    Just look at the kind of crap you can buy in stores that makes no sense to YOU. Without the idealistic engineer dreaming stuff up, other more practical engineers would have nothing cool to buy.

    Geeks and engineers are such a small demographic that the usual consumer market doesn’t apply. There’s no motive to make a product for such a small group. And while that group IS getting larger, it started off small enough that it couldn’t support commercial products. Linux is now available commercially because there is now enough interest to support a business. The same thing happens to a lot of products that started off as DIY projects. I’m sure the first coffee pot was a DIY project.

    If us geeks are lucky, someone with money will see profit potential and turn the “fabber” into a product.

  17. Shamus says:

    Purple Library guy:

    Did you read my post? I never said there was anything wrong with open source. I took issue with the idea that products and companies are inherantly bad things. I didn’t even say the F@H guys were of that mindset. I just used it as a launching point.

  18. Shamus says:

    Alex Ponebshek: I explicitly said, if they want to invent and leave the mfg to others, that was really cool. I even said I was of the same mindset.

  19. Tower says:

    Perhaps we’d all be better off if we went back to the times when software programs were legally classified as ammunition.

    That would make things all kinds of less complicated :-) (steampunk nose smiley)

  20. Shamus says:

    I really don’t know where I went wrong with this article. I was exceptionally careful to make it clear that I’m happy with the wonderful stuff open source brings us, and people are still treating this as some sort of attack on open source.

    I was very clear, but I’ll sum up.:

    * Open source is good
    * Inventing is good
    * The F@H guys are good.

    I was just using his comment as a launching point to talk about the reflexive anti-corporate attitude I see now and again from well-meaning types.

  21. Bill says:

    I think the problem was conflating the open source guys with the anti-corporate guys, and then intimating that you have to be an os designer to use an open source os.


    “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.)”

    As I’m sure you know, linux is mostly written by guys who work for corporations, who are paid to write it (IBM, Red Hat, Novell, etc.). This is in the best interests of the businesses. As an end user, you don’t have to pay for it, and the resulting system can be set up to be as user-proof as any windows installation. Since most windows users require help when things go sideways, it isn’t really big issue if linux requires the same. It certainly isn’t as big a difference as requiring an os designer to be the end user.

  22. Rebecca says:


  23. Phlux says:

    Here’s something to nudge this conversation away from the tired and boring conversation of open-source vs commercial software.

    A you-tube video of a 3d fabricator process similar to what I described above. This one uses water instead of compressed air, which I suppose might work better because you can use a water soluble support matrix. It has the downside of probably not being re-usable, though.

  24. Shamus says:

    I wasn’t so much conflating anti-corp with open-source advocate, except that one is a minor subset of the other. Although now I can sort of see how someone might think that, if they wanted to just take my words at the worst possible meaning. Which is apparently what happened. Sigh.

    I wasn’t thinking that you had to be on OS designer to use Linux, but that you had to be a programmer. (Or something close to that.) Some of the distros are apparently pretty good about shielding the user from recompiles and comand prompt adventures, but for a long time this wasn’t the case. For a long time the only operating system regular people could use were corporate ones.

  25. Bill says:

    Yeah, I’m not saying that’s what you meant, just that the proximity of the words contributes to the appearance that that’s what you meant.

    Quite frankly, you have to have a high degree of experience with computers in general to reliably set up and maintain any OS without screwing things up. Most people just have that experience with windows.

    I don’t like to screw around with OSes too much, but I seem to bounce back and forth between Linux and windows without ever being really happy. Once XP dies I’ll probably finally switch to a Mac.

  26. Dev Null says:

    Oh Shamus.

    The only place you went wrong with this article was in posting it out where the knee-jerk flame trolls live. I don’t have any problem with sensible debate – and I think that you don’t either – but several of these people have obviously not actually read all of your post before skipping down to the end with a mighty cry of “Flame On!” You were clear in the original that you respected there F@H guys, and empathised with them, but you brought up the entirely salient point that while open source is nifty it doesn’t really work in the manufacturing world. (Or at least it won’t until we all have a Fabber in our kitchens, so sharing manufactured ideas can be done just like sharing code…) Which would make for an interesting topic of discussion, if folks weren’t too busy jumping on your case to think about it.

    The analogy to open-source code fails because with code you are making freely available not just the plans but the end product. If I want to get my hands dirty and make it better I can, but if I just want a damn FTP client that works I can download Filezilla and be done with it. With a physical manufactured object all you can do is distribute the plans for free – unless you’re wealthy enough to mass-produce them and give them away, and people with that kind of attitude tend not to hold onto the wealthies so well. An interesting take on this shows up in Charles Stross’ sci-fi novel Accelerando, where his main character comes up with cool ideas and patents them… and then gives the patent rights to an equivalent of the FSF. What he doesn’t go into is what happens with them then; I believe the implication is that anyone is allowed to use them _and_ make money off them, but _noone_ retains exclusive right to them – probably this Free Patent Foundation gets a minor cut which they use to cover costs and encourage further development. So in that model, your F@H guys patent, Sony or someone manufactures and makes a profit, but what Sony can’t do is stop anyone else from using the design.

    Don’t let them get you down Shamus; we enjoy the insights.

  27. -Chipper says:

    For those interested in the prototype fabrication end of the discussion:


    This is a company local to me that has several commercially available prototype fabricators that use different techniques and different materials and the website gives an overview of them. I love it. I’ve used a few different techniques to get parts in my hands 48 hours after I’ve designed it on my computer. This is a huge improvement since these things used to have to be machined and could take a week or two.


  28. Phlux says:


    Thanks for the link. I’m going to look those guys up. We’re interested in buying one of these at work. We have what’s called a cone-beam CT scanner. It basically takes “slices” of a patient’s head, but instead of a big gigantic machine with magnets and stuff, it’s just a chair that you sit in, and it spins around your head. Takes about 20 seconds and it procudes .2mm resolution images.

    The software then takes those 2d slices and builds up a 3d model in the computer, that can be manipulated and sliced through and looked inside of. It’s very cool. The radiation dosage is even less than what is typically recieved when getting dental x-rays taken.

    We’re thinking that we can take those scans, build the 3D model and then replicate an entire human skull in plastic, or more likely, just the mouth, since this is for a dental school.

    Needless to say we can do some pretty awesome stuff with that.

  29. TalragSmash says:

    Beats getiing forgotten in the chair with a mouth full of goop so you cant even call for help by the time you realize its turned into concrete… took 45 minutes to get the damn mould off my teeth.

  30. Why do I think that I would just use machines like these to make gaming minis?
    OOoo, or maybe remake all my furniture to techno-organic cyberpunk a la Giger meets Lovecraft meets SteamPunk and Victorian Clockwork!
    Okay, now I’m geeking out again…
    /goes back to quiet corner…

  31. Cineris says:

    @Rev.Doktor Blacky Thanatos Roach:

    I think you just thought up the killer app for these machines … Though, I’d want one that printed out pewter miniatures. And, heck, pewter is expensive. I haven’t looked into the pricing yet but it might cost more to print them yourself (and get the designs?) than to buy them…

  32. Lanthanide says:

    Can anyone come up with a really great use for these things? Seriously, I just don’t see it. You can’t really make anything with electronics in it for starters.

    Probably it’s best use is to make components of things which can then be assembled, but the average consumer is probably not going to want one in their kitchen for that.

  33. Phlux says:


    That happens more frequently than you’d think. What we want to use it for is implant cases. Instead of getting a denture, bridge or whatever when your tooth comes out, you get a screw drilled into your mouth, and a fake tooth is snapped on top. They’re much better than dentures, but have to be placed surgically. These 3d models are much better than any plaster cast, because you’re not just guessing where the best place to drill that hole is going to be.

    I’ve even seen software that can create a model for a surgical placement guide. You just fit it over the patient’s mouth and drill where the holes are.

    It you think that sounds gruesome…here’s a picture of what it looks like on an xray afterwards.


  34. Elethiomel says:

    Shamus said: “I wasn't thinking that you had to be on OS designer to use Linux, but that you had to be a programmer. (Or something close to that.) Some of the distros are apparently pretty good about shielding the user from recompiles and comand prompt adventures, but for a long time this wasn't the case. For a long time the only operating system regular people could use were corporate ones.”

    What is sticking in open source advocates’ craws in these comments is that *right now*, when distros like Ubuntu has made Linux into something where you just put in the CD, install it, and run it… that’s when you comment on not wanting to build your OS yourself. Not five years ago when it was true, but now, when it *no longer is*. There’s a big push in some open source communities to change peoples’ attitudes to open source software now that the reality reflects the ideal. Comments like yours seem part of the problem these people are working to correct.

    Also, comparing any real world object – whether the schematics are free or not – to software is inherently flawed.

  35. -Chipper says:

    That is really cool.

    FYI, the company whose website I posted doesn’t (to my knowledge) sell the prototyping machines, it sells prototyping services; they own several different types of prototyping machines and if you email a 3D file & a purchase order to them they will create the part for you. But if you need to buy such a machine, they are a friendly group & may at least give you some good intel to help you along. And depending on how often you plan to make such prototypes, if not often, buying the prototypes from such a company may be more economical than buying your own machine.

  36. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    Rev.Doktor Blacky Thanatos Roach, you are thinking along the same lines as I. I was recalling the recent post of Shamus’ regarding the fascinating work by Datamancer here. Perhaps this will give me a way to actually fabricate these neat parts without requiring a machine shop. Since that post I have been eying up the open spaces in my 3 bedroom apartment to figure out where to put one, but with a family of four in there it has been difficult. I’m sure I could figure out a way to keep the baby in his crib while it was upright against a wall, but it might be impossible to convince my wife that it’s a good idea.

    The market is there, even if small, but that market is primarily composed (to my view) of those who WANT to be able to build neat things but lack the technical ability or time. I believe THAT was Shamus’ point about open source manufacturing. Forgive me if I’m wrong.


  37. ngthagg says:

    Two things:

    Elethiomel: An easy to install OS is only one part of the equation, and it is the lesser part. An OS is only a means to an end. What about software?

    Shamus: (Off topic) Phlux’s comment is cut off for me. It’s wider than the rest of the comments, but doesn’t display the whole thing. The width is the lenght of the link up to 263.

  38. Elethiomel says:

    ngthagg: I have software for all the things I do with a computer readily available on my Ubuntu installation. If there’s something I need to do that there isn’t already software installed for, I do Applications -> Add/Remove (Applications is the equivalent of the Start button under Windows) and either navigate through selections or type in a search term. Chances are I will find software that supports what I want to do, and then I only mark what I want to install, and it downloads that software, installs it, and makes it available on the menu automatically.

    The only software that I haven’t found a good Linux replacement for through this autoinstaller is games.

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