The Big Think

January 30, 2009

Model Man

Filed under: Computing,Mad Science,Technology — jasony @ 5:04 pm

I’ve always been a big modeler. From as far back as I can remember I’ve enjoyed building with my hands and creating something out of a kit, or out of raw materials. As a kid I built dozens of spaceships (mainly Apollo-era “real” spacecraft) as well as airplanes and ships. Never built any science fiction stuff, simply because recreating the real world was somehow interesting enough.

I would have thought that somewhere along the way I would grow out of this phase, but instead I simply graduated to building bigger things (furniture and other woodworking stuff, mainly). I’m really happy that I never outgrew the desire to create. I’m currently working on a small gothic church done with Hirst Blocks. It’s this one, in fact:


I spent about a week casting the individual stones in hydrostone (a special dental plaster that’s much stronger than plaster of paris) and then glued it all together. I then painted it and now I’m onto the roofing stage. I made up a miniature roof subassembly last night and cut out a few hundred shingles that I’ll hand apply over the coming days. It’s slow going but really rewarding.

Still, I look forward to the day when creating something from my imagination is even easier. It looks like that day is closer than we may think. Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology has gotten much more available lately, and while the $10,000+ machines are still not what you’d call “desktop”, I think it’s only a few years until we start to see them get really small and high quality. The first laser printers were clunky, big, and low quality and cost $20,000. I bought my current color laser printer for less than $250. Give it a decade and you will be able to print up any common object on your desktop, or use Sketchup to design whatever you want and have the machine spit it out. Cadspan already has a free (!!) plugin for Sketchup that will take a Sketchup model and prep it for an RP machine.

The results now are rather small and simple looking (but not too simple!). Here’s an example:


Pretty good, but not quite to the replicator stage yet.

An open source organization called RepRap has created a machine (also called “a RepRap”) that is designed to create simple prototypes. Being open source, this organization has released its plans into the wild with the intention of constantly improving the technology. Their first goal was to design a desktop replicator with enough flexibility that it could, given the correct plans, recreate itself. They recently succeeded. The initial machine cost about $500 to create, but the second machine (the one that the first one made) cost only a few dollars. Currently, the RepRap can’t do a heck of a lot. Its output is limited to simple objects like flyswatters:


door handles:


or shoes:


In fact, it’s currently limited to making things that can be extruded from a plastic polymer much like toothpaste coming from a tube. However, even with this simple set of limitations, there are literally hundreds of useful things that it can create, and the open source community is working on getting the RepRap to be able to work in soft metals. The step past basic structural forming is going to be really big. They’re trying to enable a RepRap to extrude thin conductive material and be able to embed the metal in their creations. Why is this big? Because if they’re able to do this, RepRaps will be able to start constructing common consumer electronic devices. We’re still a ways from replicating your own iPod, but making a basic light switch or doorbell-level device would be utterly simple.

So here’s my dream: I would love to be able to design something on Sketchup, send the file through an RP machine, and have whatever I can imagine pop out the other end, complete with wiring all set to take lights or other electrical components. Far from just a tool to create models of my own design, this little tool would open up whole new worlds of creativity. And the fact that I could make you a RepRap of your own in an afternoon means that these things will be all over the place.

It’s now 2009. I am going to say that within 5 years the RepRap will be able to create a simple and useful household device: a hairdryer. That’s my guess. It’ll be interesting to see if they get there. I’ll also say that it makes, oh, 90% of the thing and you only have to add a small motor or maybe a cord you can buy at the hardware store. Let’s see what can happen before January of 2014.

What would you make?

1 Comment »

  1. I think your paint job for the gothic church is better than the one shown here.. Can’t wait to see the roof!

    Comment by Erin — February 3, 2009 @ 10:34 am

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