Accelerating the Flow of Things

Ten years ago, the Internet was still mostly a medium for text and images. While interactivity was becoming more commonplace, audio and video content were just beginning to trickle. Yet today, rich multimedia content dominates the commerce and the infrastructure of the Web. By one estimate, Netflix streaming video alone consumes 20% of U.S. Internet bandwidth during prime time evening viewing hours.

Thingiverse is an online community of designers of printable objects

Today, it’s equally hard to imagine the Web as a future medium for sharing not just digital media, but also digital things. Digital things are data packages that describe the shape, material composition, and fabrication of objects. Industrial manufacturers have worked this way for decades, using computer-aided design (CAD) to transmit new ideas from drawing board to factory. But today, online repositories like Thingiverse—where people openly share and invite others to build on their designs—are unlocking the innovative potential of a grassroots community of tinkerers and designers to create and share digital plans for real objects.

These communal repositories coupled with cheap CAD software and a new breed of desktop 3D printers—which can “print,” or layer up, designs in a variety of industrial materials—are bringing down the barriers to accelerating the flow of things on the Internet. We call this new ecosystem of open source tools for designing, sharing, and producing physical artifacts open fabrication.

The key principles of open fabrication are simple:

  • Stay flexible—The resources for open fabrication (the printers, software, and materials) are still rudimentary and rough, but the call to arms is to explore the flexibility of cheap and accessible desktop manufacturing.
  • Leverage Web scale—The maker movement started in garages and workshops but soon formed communities on the Web; now open fabrication is systematically leveraging the Web’s scale through the creation of standards and knowledge repositories like Thingiverse.
  • Be open—This simple dictum is often in short supply in the world of design and industrial manufacturing. Open fabricators share intellectual property in the form of object designs, code, and process innovations, accelerating the learning of all.

Next: Processes: The Fundamentals of 3D Printing

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