Homemade products for the internet generation

Fri, Jul 31, 2009, 01:00

WIRED: Innovative hardware hackers are making personal manufacturing a reality

WE’VE ALL become used to the idea that the internet changed fame. A kid’s blog can beat a media corporation’s efforts in popularity. News can break from any point on the globe via Twitter or YouTube. Successful software can emerge from a garage. The internet eliminates the infrastructural requirements that were once a barrier to success and adoption – it is the ultimate equaliser of virtual goods.

Nothing has quite the same effect in the real world. Creating a new widget is still capital-intensive. Materials costs, traditional engineering and logistics go with physical products, and failures cost money. It has made the hypercreativity of the internet hard to recreate in manufacturing.

But a recent generation of amateur-going-pro hardware hackers may be getting closer to that idea of try-and-see-what- sticks manufacturing.

Take Adam Skory and Eric Boyd of San Francisco. They met at Noisebridge, a local hacker space with a heavy emphasis on hardware. Years before, they both read about a research project by the cognitive psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany called the Feelspace.

It involved a series of mild buzzers hooked to an electronic compass and arrayed along a belt. The buzzers signal north to the wearer of the belt – giving him or her a perfect directional sense that integrated into the wearer’s sensory experience over time.

Skory and Boyd wanted to try it, but the Feelspace had not gone beyond a research project. So they grabbed the Noisebridge soldering irons and made one for themselves. (Full disclosure: I am also a member of Noisebridge.)

“From the beginning we wanted to document our progress, thinking others would likely want to repeat it,” says Skory. “After many people responded to our own original prototypes with, ‘Hey, if you guys made a kit of those, I would totally buy one’, we thought of selling them.”

For advice on making and marketing their kits, they turned to Noisebridge founder Mitch Altman, creator of the TV-B-Gone, a universal remote control with only an off button, which is also available in a kit form for people who want to build electronics as well as switch off TVs. Altman’s kits (and assembled devices), which have sold successfully for years, started with a little of his own seed money and are available from his consulting website. It is hard to imagine investors funding a universal TV off switch.

Skory had not built electronics before, and had no investors. But he and Boyd are now happily taking e-mail orders from people who want to try out a new sense.

They have called their version the North Paw. It is bootstrapped financially just enough by people willing to pre-order and able to put together what they get.

If the North Paw and TV-B- Gone point towards innovative small-scale manufacturing, another kit called the MakerBot could be the destination.

A MakerBot is a 3D printer: it takes a design in software and extrudes it in plastic, building it up layer by layer. At less than $1,000 (€709), the open-source kit opens up a world of 3D manufacturing previously reserved for those with $20,000 or more to spare.

“The MakerBot is for tinkerers, designers, architects and people who want to live in the future,” says Bre Pettis, one of the founders of New York-based MakerBot Industries.

Along with Zach Smith, he also started a complementary community for personal manufacturing called Thingiverse, a website for people with 3D printers, laser cutters, software-controlled mills, and plenty of ideas. It hosts and shares manufacturing design files.

It has the things you might expect from the internet – plans for stormtrooper heads and slingshots – but it also has some designs that subtly suggest the different world that personal manufacturing might make.

There is a file for printing measure spoons, with one unlikely size being 13/16ths of a teaspoon. Our recipes in the physical world, for cooking or more, are constrained by what we can reasonably expect people to have in terms of equipment. But when the recipe can include specifics of the equipment, it is hard to imagine what the limits would be – the internet’s hypercreativity and community, finally delivered to the physical world.

“All the MakerBotters are a community of people fabricating a better, decentralised personal manufacturing world,” says Pettis. “MakerBots bring a factory to your desktop, and Thingiverse lets you share and discover amazing things to make.”

MakerBots have been shipped to Disney, Nasa, college dormitories, community centres, hackerspaces and people’s garages. Much like Skory, the MakerBot founders got together to build their 3D printer, and decided to see if other people wanted to follow in their simplified footsteps. People did.

“We’re actually selling every batch out even though we keep scaling to make each batch bigger,” says Pettis. He is giddy about the possibilities of personal manufacturing. “In a few years, I predict MakerBots will be on everyone’s desktop making lovely noises as they create beautiful and useful objects.”