A new wave of makers and DIY engineers has succeeded in transforming innovation from a complicated and expensive process into a task simple enough to be done on the kitchen table. The tools: ingenious small robots, low-cost 3-D printers, and simple electronic bits that snap together like Legos. With the rise of technology that is creating at-home engineers, the world of prototyping is morphing dramatically. Now, small-scale inventors and industrialists are able to sample, modify, reconfigure, tinker—in short, to innovate—in minutes rather than in months. Here's how.
At the helm of the DIY manufacturing revolution is MakerBot, a company based in Brooklyn, New York. Its 3-D printers are crucial to the success of many at-home industrialists. Founder Bre Pettis says the company's take-home machine, dubbed the Thing-o-Matic, allows innovators to cross the line between a concept for a product and its real physical version. "A MakerBot lets you iterate on your ideas because it lets you see your idea and hold it in your hands," Pettis says. "It's easy to make changes and improvements to refine your idea."
Cloudfab is one of the services that have popped up to give creators and inventors a low-cost way to create a small run of items, turning 3-D files into products on-demand. The company can print one prototype or thousands for a production run, including this robot exoskeleton prototype Cloudfab built for DARPA for an educational robot in the Smithsonian. "The future we want to make is where all those ideas everyone has, whether kitchen-ware or lab-ware, are able to be produced from a prototype to full mass production," CEO Nick Pinston says.
The littleBits system opens the world of inventing and modifying to a whole world of amateur inventors. The tiny pre-assembled, color-coded circuit boards in the growing littleBits library make prototyping as meditative as playing with Legos. Pieces include lights, buzzers, speakers, and solar panels that easily snap together using magnets. "This puts power previously reserved for engineers into the hands of kids, artists, designers, and amateur inventors," says founder and lead engineer Ayah Bdeir. "littleBits makes electronics and interaction—light, sound, sensing, mechanics—into an accessible, creative and intuitive prototyping material, much like cardboard, paper, nuts and bolts."
With Shapeways, not only can one upload a design, but also the co-creator platform facilitates teaming up with a designer to bring the idea into tangible existence. The platform caters to all skill levels, and doesn't stop once the product is made. "As a prototyping tool, it can be used to fine-tune product design by looking at the physical model," CEO Peter Weijmarshausen says. "By using a Shapeways shop product, designers can even start selling directly to a worldwide audience without any need for setting up production, distribution, or retail yourself."
Adafruit Industries founder Limor Fried landed a spot as the cover girl of Wired's April issue this year for her pioneering open-source electronics kits that have helped spur a wave of DIY engineering. Her open-source policy allows inventors to share projects and improve on each others' ideas, which turns R&D into a big crowd-sourcing project. The simple educational materials are designed to help first-time engineers too. An in-house "pick and place" machine puts tiny parts on circuit boards and melts them into place. "By doing this in-house we're able to have high-quality control and short timelines from concept to release," Fried says.
These small, personal 3-D printers are promoted as "rapid prototyping" machines and a way to "communicate with your concept." The printers by 3D Systems, are useful for designers, engineers, and artists who are looking to make everything from medical supplies such as hearing aids and surgical guides to home goods such as electronics and fashion accessories. Last year, the company acquired Bits from Bytes, a UK-based provider of low-cost 3-D printers and kits. "[W]ith comprehensive 3D content-to-print solutions and systems starting at under $1,300, we are empowering thousands of new users from educators and students to 'makers' at home and in the workshop," says Cathy Lewis, vice president of global marketing. —Tim Donnelly