Open Fab Community 1: The MakerBot Thingiverse

In 1985, the theoretical capacity for desktop publishing—the ability to produce documents containing text and graphics on a computer screen that could print on paper—was unlocked by the advent of Apple’s LaserWriter. Although the following decades saw a proliferation of poorly designed party invitations with jarring font selections (like Comic Sans) and misaligned columns, the consumer-grade desktop printer drastically lowered the barrier between conceiving an idea and creating a physical manifestation of that idea in the world.

A user created Pirate party stamp. Source: Thingiverse.

In March 2009, Brooklyn, NY–based MakerBot Industries released the first consumer-grade 3D printer. The Cupcake CNC, priced at $750, used additive manufacturing of superheated acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) to produce objects roughly the size of a softball and was heralded as a revolution akin to desktop printing 20 years before. Once again, the barrier was lowered between conceiving an idea and creating a physical manifestation of that idea in the world.

Using 3D modeling software such as Google’s Sketchup, fabricators (owners of personal 3D printers) are able to generate stereolithography files, which are denoted by their .stl extension. These .stl files are processed by ReplicatorG, open source software that processes and creates the most efficient and stable build pathway for an object modeled in 3D space.

A user modeled belt hanger. Source: Thingiverse

In addition to creating 3D models on their own, since 2008 fabricators have also been building Thingiverse.com—a personal fabricator community site for sharing and refining digital designs so that they can be printed by anyone with access to a machine.

Indeed, in order to know what the future of personal fabrication looks like, a visit to Thingiverse.com is the best starting point. The site’s homepage categorization of goods as “Newest Derivatives,” “Popular Things,” and “Newest Things,” provides a helpful orientation for the neophyte fabricator. Moreover, a click on any one of these categories immerses the user in a stunning, vast array of the truly novel, useful, and absurd applications of personal 3D printers.

Take a page at random and you will find any number of microsolutions to problems that were previously unsolved by traditional market forces: a belt hanger (as described by its creator: “I used to just have one belt, but then I saw 2 more I liked and needed something to hang them with”), a Guinea Pig cage latch (“This was made to lock a cage that we received without any way to lock the base to the upper part”), and a stamp for the Pirate Party (“A stamp with the Swedish ‘Pirate Party’ logo”).

A user modeled clip for a hamster cage. Source: Thingiverse

Taken as a whole, whether they are creating objects of art or producing replacements for broken parts of household goods, the current crop of personal fabricators are feeling out the boundaries of what can be done with desktop manufacturing. The act of creating a 3D model of something and within minutes having a physical manifestation of that object remains novel.  But when we take a closer look at the community of people who are busy experimenting with this novelty, we can identify strong signals of what the future may hold for personal fabrication.

As we shall see, the initial analogy to desktop publishing holds for only so long. The power of desktop fabrication could far outstrip that of personal printers. That said, this future is contingent on the distribution and support of a wide range of tools, skills, and materials, each of which is vital for the future’s self-empowered printer.

Next: What Does It Take to Be a Personal Fabricator?

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