The Democratization of Design

Who would have thought something that looks like a tinker toy could change the world?

The internet democratized information by making it orders of magnitude more affordable and accessible. New technology like the RepRap system shown above (http://reprap.org) has the potential to enable a similar revolution for hardware development by bringing similar scale improvements to the accessibility and affordability of mechanical design and prototyping.

RepRap is an open-source self-REPlicating RAPid prototyping machine. If you’re not familiar with this type of device, picture a printer that creates 3-dimensional objects instead of 2-dimensional pictures. Instead of depositing ink on a sheet of paper, 3-D printers deposit layer upon layer of material to make robust, 3-D parts. They are an invaluable development tool for prototyping and mechanical design because they allow a designer to bring his or her vision into the real world extremely quickly and cheaply so it can be tested and iterated on. Furthermore, they enable intricate, customized designs and shapes that can be created in a fraction of the time and without the labor required for traditional machining techniques.

Traditionally, rapid prototyping setups (e.g. FDM or STL) can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Engineers and designers have been restricted to using specialized prototyping job shops, who own these setups, to create rapid prototypes of their part designs. However, the design for the RepRap system is freely distributed under the GNU General Public License and (this is the really cool part) the system has been designed and developed so that it can create all of the non-standard parts needed to build a copy of itself. Add this to a cheap Bill of Materials due to some great design work by the people who developed the system and you have a 3-D printer that is relatively easy and inexpensive (on the order of hundreds of dollars) to obtain and use.

What does this mean? For starters, this means that thousands of designers who previously couldn’t afford rapid prototyping systems, both in the US and especially in other parts of the world, can now add small scale 3-D printers to their labs. Moving the systems in-house drastically increases productivity compared to dealing with external job shops and the associated details and headaches. It also creates the potential for a leap forward in the reach of the field of mechanical design. With easy access to sophisticated and powerful tools, engineers and designers will be able to utilize customized and optimized parts and systems instead of being restricted to readily available but non-ideal components.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what people start doing with these and to get one and try it out myself!

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