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Fabricators descend on Maker Faire Austin

Leaders of the "personal fabrication" movement gather in Austin to discuss how to bring such tools to a wider audience of people.

AUSTIN, Texas--If you've never seen a machine that makes 3D models out of sugar, you should.

But unless you're part of a relatively small group of people who went to the Maker Faire in California in May, or are one of a few other people who know the machine's creator, you probably have never even heard of the device.

Similarly, you may not be aware--or at least the general public probably isn't--that there is a whole movement going on right now to build advanced, digital, relatively inexpensive personal fabrication and robotics tools that can do or create some very cool things like laser etchings on laptops or iPods, 3D models of virtual world avatars, Lego models of almost anything, and many other kinds of projects.

A primary example of the places that offer these kinds of tools and project support is MIT's Fab Lab.

As Wikipedia's entry on such fab labs puts it: "While fab labs cannot compete with mass production and its associated economies of scale in fabricating widely distributed products, they have the potential to empower individuals to create smart devices for themselves. These devices can be tailored to local or personal needs in ways that are not practical or economical using mass production."

On Thursday, as many of the organizers of Maker Faire Austin and the so-called "makers" themselves began gathering to prepare for this weekend's event, they took time out for what they called a "fabrication summit," a discussion of such tools, and more importantly, how to get them into the hands of and in front of a larger number of people.

Hosted by Make magazine editor and publisher Dale Dougherty, the meeting--attended by some of the most accomplished people in the personal fabrication field--became a referendum on what it might take to get the masses interested in these kinds of tools and machines.

No conclusions were reached, but there were some insights that might help the group reach its goal--particularly about why most people may not know about this kind of technology.

On Thursday, some of the organizers of Maker Faire, as well as some of the 'makers' themselves gathered for a 'fabrication summit' in Austin.' Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"By far the biggest obstacle is fear," said Jim Newton, the founder and managing director of TechShop, a business in Menlo Park, Calif., that offers drop-in access to a wide range of fabrication tools. "People are afraid to try this. Very few people want to make things anymore because they've built up this fear. Aside from providing the actual tools, (it's necessary) to get people past the fear. It's (about showing) people that they can do this: 'You don't have to be an engineer. You can do this yourself.'"

Another meeting attendee, Make senior editor Phil Torrone, suggested that the way to getting people interested in using these kinds of tools, particularly young people, is to show them how to use the technology on their favorite devices.

"People under 18 want to (laser) etch their iPods and cell phones," Torrone said. "But the people that have this equipment are engineers. It's like a drug (though). You let them try it and get them addicted. You have to have a gateway drug. You have to give them something interesting first. And there are a hundred million iPods."

Lifehacker.com editor Gina Trapani had 'Make' magazine senior editor Phil Torrone etch a symbol of an Irish knot on her PowerBook. Here, the machine is still doing the etching. Gina Trapani/Lifehacker.com

But as Ted Hall, president of computer-controlled machine tool company ShopBot put it, "There's still very little awareness of digital fabrication capabilities. It's amazing to me how little awareness (there is) of how much can be done."

Part of the problem, Hall added, is terminology. For example, one important term in the personal fabrication field is CNC, or computer numerical control, which is part of the system that ShopBot uses. Hall said tools must have more accessible names.

For example, he pointed to concept of the 3D printer, a device that can build a three-dimensional physical model based on digital images. "Printer," Hall said, offers "a word of explanation that conveys everything that it is going to do. And for many of the other tools, that's not the case."

The meeting ended without specific resolutions or recommendations, but it appeared that those involved left inspired to promote their movement and to help bring the new tools to the public in a way they feel will empower the masses to do whole lot more creating on their own.