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Top 8 FAQs about DIY Fabbers

February 2008 

Q: What in the world are these initiatives?
A: RepRap (started in 2005 at the University of Bath in the UK) and Fab@Home (started in 2006 at Cornell University in the U.S.) are simple open-source build-it-yourself rapid prototyping systems that are meant to affordably bring home 3D fabrication to the masses, thereby democratizing innovation and production.

Q: Do these machines work?
A: Sort of.  Much of the literature discusses the potential of these systems, and the stated goal of RepRap (short for Replicating Rapid Prototyper) is to be able to build a replica of itself, but these freeform fabricators are a long way from primetime.  They don't print metal objects and the plastic models they build are rough.  The academics who started these projects (Dr. Adrian Bowyer at Bath, Dr. Hod Lipson at Cornell) say that's not the point.  These projects are meant as a starting point, upon which other people's input will gradually improve the systems.


(photo courtesy Fab@Home)

Q: What has been learned so far?
A: A couple things.  First, a basic fabber doesn't have to be expensive.  The RepRap folks estimate the material cost of their 3D printer at US$400.  Fab@Home materials cost about US$2,400.  A RepRap offshoot project, Tommelise, estimates its material cost at US$150.  
Second, the Fab@Home project, specifically, has demonstrated an ability, using a syringe, to fabricate models using a remarkable variety of materials, including silicone, plaster, play-doh, and chocolate.

Q: What does open-source mean?
A: It means that anyone can get in on the fun.  RepRap and Fab@Home both provide all the software code and hardware specs to allow users to tinker and hack and improve attributes and report back.     

Q: Should I get involved?
A: Sure, just don't imagine you can open a rapid prototyping service bureau or readily replace damaged household objects.  It does make a good senior project for engineering students.  For others, there is good hobby potential.  Either way, there is no doubt great satisfaction in being involved in a project that is greater than yourself, one that has the potential to advance the science of affordable freeform fabrication.

Q: Which project should I work on?
A: Fab@Home is recommended for the beginner.  Its kit is pricier but requires less know-how.  (A RepRap build includes circuit board building, and metal parts making).  Fab@Home mostly snaps and screws together, with some soldering.  Fab@Home organizers estimate a build time of 18-24 hours.  
Also, the Fab@Home system is more versatile.  The RepRap system is based on the fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology which limits the material selection.  

Q: What will come out of these initiatives?
A: No doubt, these projects will gradually advance, given the cumulative brainpower harnessed by the open source project structure.  However, given the pace of development in the rapid prototyping industry, where some of the best engineering minds are working, incremental improvements won't be able to keep up.  For example, California-based Desktop Factory, using 15 top engineers, says it will debut a complete US$1,000 3D printer within 3 years.  That remains to be seen.  Long term, RepRap's goal of fully replicating itself is the most interesting.  To do that, it will have to fabricate sensors and stepper motors, something that is years away.  


(photo courtesy the RepRap Project)

Q: How do I find out more?
A: Fab@Home wiki and RepRap main site.
    For RepRap kits and parts, there is the U.S. nonprofit RepRap Research Foundation and the UK-based Bits From Bytes.
    For Fab@Home kits and parts, go to Koba Industries and Automated Creation Technologies.  Both are U.S.-based.
    For a spin-off of the RepRap project, go to the Clanking Replicator Project, which features the wooden Tommelise fabber.  Tommelise uses Windows-based Visual Basic software, versus the Linux operating system and Java programming language used by RepRap.  Its inventor claims you can make it yourself for US$150.
    Finally, check out The CandyFab Project, an open source project that is just for fun.  High volume, low resolution equipment is partially made of old, recycled HP plotters, and is meant to only print granulated sugar.  Its creators figure it costs about US$500 to build. 

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