▲ Fabrication systems allow abstract designs, such as these small orange sculptures,
to find tangible form. The blue marble adds perspective of scale ( www.bathsheba.com).
Three-dimensional printers use a different principle, building layers of
metal or plastic to create a 3D object.
In contrast to inexpensive computer-controlled die-cutting systems, the
least expensive 3D printer costs several thousand dollars. Fortunately,
there are several ways to give students
experience using a 3D printer.
Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, and his students have established an open-source
“Fab@Home” initiative (http://fabat
home.org). The goal of the project is
to make available open-source designs
that will allow anyone to construct a
3D printer at an affordable price. The
recently released second-generation
design makes it possible to construct
one for less than $1,500. Users can
construct the Fab@Home 3D printer
in a day, with no soldering required.
This type of 3D printer, sometimes
known as a “fabber,” can serve as a
rapid prototyping machine. Fabbers
make it possible to construct complex
objects that would otherwise require
special manufacturing tools and resources. According to Lipson, the goal
of the Fab@Home initiative is the democratization of innovation.
We plan to explore use of a Fab@
Home fabricator in a local school and
will report on the results in a future
column. In the meantime, we wanted
to alert readers about this opportunity
and would be interested in hearing
about results others have had with this
Fabrication via Network
The Shapeways website ( www.shapeways.com) provides shape-creation
software that allows anyone to create
a digital design. Designers can also
use their own 3D software to create
and upload designs. A community of
users is now sharing and exchanging
designs in a gallery on the site.
The Shapeways fabrication system
employs user-created designs to make
objects such as gears, models, and artwork. Users can choose from a database of adaptable parts such as springs
and axles that serve as building blocks
for constructing complex designs. The
organization then sends completed
objects to the user via regular mail.
A key advantage of the Shapeways
system is that users create shapes
without the need for their own fabricators. The range of materials available
includes metal and nylon, which cannot be used with fabrication systems
typically available to schools.
Fabrication and the Arts
We believe the advent of personal fabrication will affect society in unexpected ways, just as the advent of personal
computing did. This will likely extend
to the humanities as well as science
and engineering. Bathsheba Gross-man, a sculptor, describes the effect
this innovation has had on her work:
I don’t limit editions.... My plan
is to make these designs available
rather than restrict the supply.
It’s more like publishing than
like gallery-based art marketing:
We don’t feel that a book has lost
anything because many people
have read it. In fact, it becomes
more valuable as it gains wide
currency and influence. With the
advent of 3D printing, this is the
first moment in art history when
sculpture can be, in this sense,
Future of Fabrication
Personal fabrication offers the opportunity to democratize innovation.
Schools must provide early access to
the tools needed to develop skills required to take advantage of this opportunity. The next Bill Gates or Thomas
Edison is undoubtedly in one of today’s schools, just waiting to get his or
her hands on a fabrication system.
Glen Bull is codirector of the
Center for Technology and
Teacher Education in the Curry School of Education at the
University of Virginia. Contact
him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Groves is the associate dean for research and out- reach in the School of Engi- neering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. Contact him at jgroves@ virginia.edu.
November 2009 | Learning & Leading with Technology 37