The Foundations of Open Fabrication

The open source software movement, in which original source code is made freely available and can be redistributed, has had a tremendous impact within the IT industry over the last two decades. Now, emerging technologies promise to similarly move the fabrication of physical things toward greater digitization and democratization. We are entering a world in which software code can be used to produce objects, and in this world, new technologies will allow for more free availability and distribution of actual things. At the center of this shift is the emergence of systems for using software to build physical objects—for example, in 3D printing or additive fabrication technologies.

Additive fabrication is still very young when compared to many other manufacturing approaches. Yet, in just over two decades the field has managed to extend from a near-exclusive focus on stereolithography (a technology focused on solidifying liquid polymers with light exposure) for prototyping, to a wide range of processes and materials, including final product manufacturing and preliminary entry into the home consumer market. The process has developed distinct advantages for many projects involving low production runs, unique or complex design, shipping constraints, and time limitations. However, fundamental limitations in process, software, and materials remain to be addressed.

Still, there are signs of emerging capabilities in both the software and materials spaces that could have a transformative impact on the future direction of this technology.

Next: Software Frontiers: More Cost-Effective Design