Innocent Bystander

A little tech, a little current affairs, and my view on whatever has my attention at the moment...

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Can't Find It? Fabricate it! Maybe...

I first heard about this concept a few months ago.  Wired magazine carried a short story about efforts to create Star Trek like “replicators” allowing you to essentially design and create any product or part that you might need.  The article predicted that in the next few years, you might be able to have a setup in your own home (maybe your garage) that would let you design, fabricate, and build anything that you needed.  The impression I had from reading the article was that this was total science fiction being played with at some university science lab.

The concept sounds great.  Need a new handle for your refrigerator, or may just want one that looks a little retro?  Design and fabricate it yourself.  How about a rare engine part for the hot rod that you’re building in your garage?  Not only can you design and fabricate it yourself, but you could even throw in a few customizations to make that part uniquely yours.  The article compares the process to creating a document on your computer, only instead of printing out your creation on a laser printer, you’re doing it on a laser cutter, machining the parts that you need.

In the September issue of Wired, they revisit the story.  The author claims that the future is now, and that services today allow the average person to replicate their own items.  In the story, the author visits emachineshop.com and downloads a CAD/CAM program, designs a guitar with it, has e-machine shop fabricate it, ship the parts to him, and he assembles it.  Viola! His very own custom designed guitar.  

So I tried it myself, I went up to emachineshop.com and downloaded their program.  Like the Wired author, my initial experience with the software my have been much better if I had some experience with CAD/CAM software, however after some cursing and some general trial and error I did manage to get the project I had in mind going.

Now before I go on, a quick word about e-machineshop.com.  They appear to be a complete fabrication shop, able to produce parts in a wide variety of materials from plastics, to metals, to wood.  They can work on the materials you select using various methods like laser cutting, machining, vacuum forming, polishing, power coating etc.  They can even to some electronics work as well including manufacturing custom circuit boards and other tasks.

I decided for my experimental project that I wanted to do something simple I choose to make a new badge for my car. Nothing too complicated, just 7 letters and here I ran into my first issues.  I had to figure out how to get the program to place letters in my design, something I figured out, but couldn’t figure out how to change the font.  In the end since I wasn’t intending on actually producing this I decided that the font wasn’t important.

Next up was selecting the material I wanted this to be made out of.  All I knew going into this step was that I wanted metal with a highly polished chrome look, this was intended to be the badge on a car after all.  The software itself gave me a list of all of the materials that emachineshop.com works with and in many occasions gives some information on the material.  I choose aircraft grade aluminum because it was the only one that the software said was good for outdoor use.  Next was the thickness, and at this point my inexperience with design really showed, I had no idea how thick my badge needed to be, and while the software gave me a list of available thicknesses, it wasn’t much help.  In the end I just randomly selected one that I figured wasn’t too thick or too thin.

Then I had to figure out how to actually create my badge, laser cut, acid etching, milling etc… There were several options to choose from, I choose laser cutting because it seemed to be the right solution for what I was looking for.  Finally I had to choose the finish, since I knew I wanted a polished surface that was easy, but I could have also selected powder coating among other finishing options.

Now you tell the software to verify that your job is actually possible and to price it out for you as well as to project your delivery time.  At this point I had to deal with more problems, the software said I couldn’t laser cut the badge and had to come up with a different manner of making my letters, then it told me that the letters were too small to polish so I needed to come up with a different finish too…  At this point I was so frustrated I just randomly selected different cutting and finishing options to finish the exercise, at which point it the price it gave me was $226 and it would take 21 days for delivery!

In the process it got me thinking…  Just what is so revolutionary about this?  There are machine shops all over, I’m sure they can accept plans and drawings done on CAD/CAM software for parts, so what’s the difference?  Other than the fact that emachineshop.com offers more than just metal or wood what is some impressive about them that this is the wave of the future?  I’m sure I could go and get a part for my car custom fabricated at any local machine shop…

The article also mentions something that I experienced.  Just because something looks good in the program, doesn’t mean that the finished product will be as intended.  It might be too thick or too heavy, or it might just not work.  In many cases an experienced designer might be able to figure this out without sending the item to be produced, but the average person may not be able to spot these issues, and as I saw above mistakes can be costly.

The promise of being able to fabricate anything you need with just the click of a mouse is terrific.  But I just don’t think we’re any closer today than we were 10 years ago.  

For the time being when it comes to do it your so fabrication… I think the future is still later…

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