Fabricators, a kind of 3-D printer, may become household objects in the future. Will putting the blueprints on the Internet jump-start the technology?


Building your own building machine. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Someday every home may have a fabricator. It’s a device like an inkjet printer, but it generates 3-D objects. In fact, if you're handy, tech-savvy, and very patient, you can build your own fabricator now, using plans from fabathome.org. The project was born at Cornell University. Robotics engineer Hod Lipson says fabricators have long been used in science and industry.


The challenges, though, are that first, they are inaccessible to most people, and the second one is that they usually make a part made out of one material, instead of making a complete, integrated system.

Though it's not as powerful as an industrial fabricator, FabAtHome can work with multiple materials. So far, eager users have made objects including toys, dog bones, and Frisbees®. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Before you rush home and break out your tool box, you should know that it isn't easy or cheap to build a fabricator right now, even with FabAtHome. You need a solid background in computers, a knack for building things, and about $2000 in spending money to buy the parts. And if you do build one, don't expect it to pay for itself anytime soon: the objects people have “fabbed” so far can be bought in a store for a few dollars.

So what's the point of all this work? Lipson's crew isn't expecting homemade fabricators to become as common as iPods, at least not yet. But by posting the blueprints and the programming code on the Internet, they have put the fabricator into the universe of “open source” technology. “Open source” means that the design, blueprint, or program for a product is freely available for anyone to access or revise. This flies in the face of traditional business: imagine the Coca-Cola Company publishing Coke's closely guarded formula online, and inviting anyone to improve it.

To make something open source, you have to be willing to create it without being paid directly for its use. Normally, if you invent something, you patent it, and collect a royalty on any product that uses your invention. What's more, you have to expect other people to put in countless hours of work in order to improve it, and to collaborate together online to make sure that the improvements are actually better.

Sounds crazy, right? Yet the Internet is now full of open-source successes, including Wikipedia, which isn't copyrighted and can be edited by anyone; software companies like Mozilla or OpenOffice.org, which make free competitors to such copyrighted programs as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word; and Linux, a computer operating system used by many major companies and government agencies.

The idea behind open source is that two heads are better than one, and a thousand heads are better still: in other words, that technology will progress more quickly if people all over the world can contribute their ideas. There are enough people who are passionate enough about this principle to make many open source projects viable. In the case of the fabricator, Lipson's team is betting that fabricators will get into mainstream use sooner by building on the early efforts of the die-hard techies participating in FabAtHome.

The open source principle raises some challenging questions. If open source products become more widespread, how will traditional products, which cost money, compete? If someone can't expect to make money by creating something—whether it's a novel, a machine, or a software program—what will motivate the next generation of artists and inventors? How will open source projects survive in the long term without a strong command center and business plan?

Fabricators themselves present similar issues. Suppose fabricators get to the point where they can make many commercial products cheaply. If you can make things at home on a fabricator, will people stop shopping in stores? If so, what will happen to the economy? If you can also download the blueprints for any object for free, and load it into your fabricator, who will make the blueprints? Will they be paid? If not, what will motivate people to invent anything new? Will businesses have to shift over to selling raw materials, like metal, plastic, or ceramic? If so, how many different raw material-selling companies can the economy sustain, especially when people can comparison shop on the Internet?

In reality, fabricators may never become sophisticated enough to overshadow the retail industry. Or, the economy may adapt to the technology, just as the record industry has been forced to adapt to the digital music revolution. Still, this little project, which may seem like a geeky hobby today, could have serious repercussions down the road.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a fabricator?
  2. What are the advantages of FabAtHome, compared with industrial fabricators? What are the disadvantages?
  3. What does “open source” mean? How does it apply to FabAtHome?
  4. Do you think open source is a good or bad thing for technology? Do you believe in making open source reference materials, like Wikipedia? What about textbooks? What about works of art, like novels or poems?
  5. How might fabricators and open source projects affect the economy? Can you think of possible consequences not mentioned above?

You may want to check out the April 27, 2007, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: the science of deja vu, how pollution from cities affects rainfall on mountaintops, a machine that can make almost anything, diets that just don't work, and why celebrities don't make great salespeople.

For Educators

Visit the FabAtHome website for information, history, photos, examples of objects made, and even the blueprints and computer code.

An Interview With Linus Torvalds, from Good Morning Silicon Valley (reviewed by Econ EdLink), the inventor of the open-source operating system Linux, talks about the future of proprietary software models, Microsoft, and open source software.

Wikipedia's own About Wikipedia page describes how an open-source encyclopedia works.

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