A few weeks ago a project was started here at CAT to research and develop open source digital fabrication methods. Digital fabrication tools allow us to build precise parts for everyday useful objects; and have been used for rapid prototyping in industry for many years. The focus of this project is to make such tools accessible at a community level, a bit like having access to a master craftsman in your local town or village, but in digital form.
A key aspect of this project is that all software source code and hardware designs are available freely under the GNU General Public License. Open sourcing allows a horizontal transfer of technology, gives greater autonomy for local communities to build the technology they need, and enables them to tap into a global knowledge base. It often gives rise to greater modularity in design (easier to fix, maintain and integrate), and thus in many cases better re-use of materials and components: leading to a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle.
Our initial focus is the RepRap 3D printer: a fabricator that can self replicate many of its component parts, thus the technology can be easily passed on to other communities. Documentation can be found at www.reprap.org . A RepRap can print using a variety of plastics (such as starch based biodegradable PLA). Other materials will also be investigated, such as ceramic extrusion and wood milling. An analogy for this project is like the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers. In the same way bees pollinate flowers in return for nectar, humans will assemble machines in return for useful objects. In this way, both parties mutually benefit and human creativity and innovation can still evolve.
Local manufacturing itself should give rise to ‘just in time’ ‘pull-type’ production as opposed to a centralised ‘push’ approach with its associated inefficiencies of storing and distributing goods (naturally there will always be energy/ecological/social trade offs between the two methods). Digital fabrication is just one of many tools for localised production and living; other aspects are still to be explored within the open source eco-system, such as energy production, material extraction, transportation and agriculture.
At CAT one focus will be the application of these tools for building parts for our displays and renewable energy systems such as molds for wind turbine aerofoils, pelton wheels, mechanical cogs, connectors, jigs and fixings. The project is open to discussion on what the best approaches might be for given situations, and also to explore the infinite realm of ideas on what we can build!
To follow progress of this work, please visit the blog www.digitalfabcat.blogspot.com and feel free to share your findings, links, experiences and thoughts for applications in this collaborative project.