Real Life Replicators – Desktop Manufacturing Today

by Joseph Flaherty on April 14, 2009

The internet has fundamentally changed the way we deal with data. P2P distribution, blogs, and other social media tools have changed music, media and journalism. We are on the cusp of seeing similar disruption in product based industries. A variety of new manufacturing tools make it possible to manipulate paper, metal, wood, stone, and fabric almost as easily as bits of information.

3D printers are the best publicized subset of these tools, but are just a small portion of the custom manufacturing toolbox. Other devices can produce retail quality goods easier and more cost effectively. The following tools combined with popular 2D/3D CAD programs are making it increasingly easy to make anything you can imagine.

CNC Plotters

CNC plotters enable you to cut 2D shapes out of a variety of thin sheet materials (paper, cardstock, foil, vinyl, etc.) and cost between $300-500. The two popular models are the CriCut, made by ProvoCraft, and the Graphtec CraftRobo (AKA Xyron Wishblade). The CriCut has a cartridge based system that allows users to entirely avoid computers, for a price. The Graphtec is driven by output of vector editing programs like Adobe Illustrator.

Cool things you can make:

at-ats

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/xwM0g

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CNC Embroiderers

CNC embroiderers can quickly and autonomously add detailed designs and patterns to the fabric of your choosing. Brother’s Quattro model is the top of the line for home users, but a variety of other products exist at prices ranging from $400-10,000 (for more info visit: http://www.dzgns.com/). Some models can be driven with standard design software, but others rely on cartridge based designs which offer convenience, at a very steep price. These machines bring factory quality output to the home.

Cool things you can make:

cnc_embroidering

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1Go6Bm

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CNC Mills

CNC Mills can use spinning blades to carve 3D forms out of blocks of material, including: wax (pictured), plastics, metals, woods, foams, etc. These can range from million dollar machines used to mill propellers for airplanes to the more accessible Craftsman CompuCarve which is available to the serious hobbyist for $2000. The output of CNC mills can be used as a finished product or an intermediary step. The image below is a wax ring that is ultimately turned to gold using an investment casting process.

Cool things you can make:

ring

http://alternativejewelryshop.blogspot.com/

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Laser Cutters

Lasers work much like CNC plotters, but have more flexibility. You can cut 2D sheet materials, but the range is greatly expanded to include plastics, woods, leathers, and varying thickness which would be impossible with a CNC plotter (e.g. with lasers It is fairly easy to cut 1/4″ plastics). In addition lasers can etch images into stone, glass, and metals. The achieveable surface detail is impressive and the combination of cutting and marking make lasers one of the most versatile manufacturing tools available. An entry level laser system costs about $10,000 with higher end systems reaching $35,000.

Cool things you can make:

lasers

Photo Credits: http://bit.ly/tv3KK & http://www.epiloglaser.com/

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Water Jet Cutters

Water jet cutters are similar to laser cutters. Water jet cutters can cut/engrave surfaces by blasting a high pressure stream of water and abrasive material onto a surface. WaterJet cutters are more powerful than lasers and can cut through steel and stone several inches thick, but are unusable on more delicate materials like paper. With great power comes great expense, but a good system can be rented for $2,600/month.

Cool things you can make:

omax_interlock_vig

Photo Credit: http://www.omax.com/

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3D Printers

3D printers are very cool and have a wide range of capabilities depending on model and manufacturer. 3D printers made by ZCorp can print in full color and are used by a number of companies to bring video games to life, however their output is very delicate. Stratasys 3D Printers are also used for model making in the product development process, but produce parts that are extremely durable with properties that nearly match production plastics. In some cases 3D printers can create parts that are used as finished goods as in this case of Direct Digital Manufacturing. 3D printing is a rapidly developing industry and could be very useful in the years to come. Current entry level systems 3D printers cost $15,000 with the top of the line machines in the six figures. For the budget concious 3D printing services like Shapeways offer access to amazing machines with no capital costs.

Cool things you can make:

shapeways

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/15frXt

Taken together these tools are a tremendous addition to the hacker tool box and have the potential to reshape our world.

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