Do you enjoy watching Microsoft squirm as it tries to grapple with the open-source software movement? Well, there's a similar opportunity to rattle the cages of entrenched corporate powers, but this time it's the cages of hardware companies.
Bringing the open-source movement's collaborative approach to hardware is the ambition of the Fab@Home project at Cornell University. Project members hope to popularize all-purpose manufacturing devices--variously known as fabbers, 3D printers or rapid prototyping machines--and share the blueprints of the physical objects those machines can produce.
The project offers a free design for a fabber--itself a modifiable design--as well as templates for some objects it can build. The project's aspiration is to "democratize innovation."
"A fabber can allow you explore new designs, e-mail physical objects to other fabber owners, and most importantly, set your ideas free," project organizers say on their Web pages. "Just like the Internet and MP3s have freed musical talent from control of big labels, so can widespread (rapid prototyping) divorce technological innovation from the control of big corporations.
So far, though, Toyota and other manufacturing specialists probably aren't quaking in their boots. Current democraticized innovations are limited to objects made of materials that can be squirted out of a big syringe--a silicon rubber watchband, for example, or an edible box made of cake icing. And the record for tallest object, so far, is a 3.7-inch-tall rubber squeeze bulb.
The project has grander hopes for "universal fabrication," the ability to build active devices out of multiple materials, not just components made of a single material.