Hint: They’re not 3D Printers… not ABS/PLA Printers at least.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to my very first MakerFaire, a great big celebration of creativity where everything from the ingenious to the wacky is proudly displayed to the public. But if someone asked you what singular item you thought best symbolized the DIY-madness of the Maker movement, what would be the first thing that popped into your head? The vast majority of people, even if they’d never set foot in a hackerspace, would probably answer: a 3D Printer.
And for the most part, they would be correct. 3D printers absolutely dominated MakerFaire NY this year, where at least two dozen booths were showing off their fantastic engines of plastic creation. The technology, which falls under a blanket of techniques known as additive manufacturing, has matured greatly since its inception many years ago. Where once you needed some basic programming and computer modeling expertise to create something in your basement, companies like Microsoft are now stepping in to make 3D printing as easy as printing a PDF… which may still be a bit of a tall order for some older generations.
Although I give Microsoft huge props for building 3D printing support directly into Windows 8.1, as well as partnering with Makerbot, neither of those two companies makes my list for the top 3 coolest/revolutionary machines/technologies of MakerFaire 2013. The reason for this is that PLA/ABS plastic-based 3D printing is no longer a new frontier. Microsoft proved this by stepping into the ring. There are so many mature designs out there that you can actually pick up a 3D printer from Staples nowadays.
So although 3D printing might still be synonymous with the Maker movement, it’s not really “the new frontier” anymore. 3D printing is sort of undergoing a mainstreaming revolution like the first iPods did, from hipster badge to ‘no big deal’. Instead, it was these technologies or machines that piqued my curiosity at World Maker Faire 2013:
5 Axis Desktop CNC Milling Machine
Pocket NC brought out a product they call the P5, a five-axis CNC milling machine slightly larger than a toaster oven. Conventionally, CNC machines have been stuck in the 3-axis world, which is not at all synonymous with “3D” freedom. Instead, that means that anything you make is limited in geometry to having no overhangs. I.e. If you draped a sufficiently loose tablecloth over a CNC milled object, the cloth would be able to follow each and every contour just by gravity.
5-axis machines would be truly revolutionary introductions to hobbyist Making because they give *nearly* the same amount of design flexibility a 3D printer affords (there are still some ‘impossible’ geometries you simply cannot reach with an end mill bit). Plus, you start with a solid piece of material with fixed mechanical properties. You’re not melting and solidifying plastic, and depositing it in fused layers.
Of course, this could be super scary stuff as well. 3D printed guns are crap. CNC machined lower receivers would be fantastic, but frightening. We are truly entering into into an uncertain personal Making revolution. Couple this with something like the X-Winder, another machine from MakerFaire that lets you weave your own carbon-fiber extrusions, and you literally have all the capabilities you need to construct just about anything. Imagine CF-reinforced gun barrels with an ablative 3D printed inner lining…
Desktop SMT Pick-and-Place Machines
Groups like Tempo Automation and Pumping Station One are putting out SMT component placement machines, which let you produce electronics in PCB-form. Traditionally, if you wanted to build an electronics project and package it in a way that didn’t involve electrical tape and breadboards you had to get a PCB manufactured and then mount and solder on a bunch of tiny components. Or buy pre-fabbed boards at places like Sparkfun, assuming a product existed that met your needs.
Now you can machine your own copper circuit board with a desktop CNC and go so far as to automate the mounting procedure for chips, resistors, and/or any other SMD on a reel. Need to make a bunch of LED circuits for a project… or dare I say cosplay? Now you can run a mini-factory in your garage. This is a game-changer if you want to take back the market for cheap electronics from China.
Any EE or CE would probably be more excited than me though. This is mostly beyond my needs and capabilities.
Light-Curing Stereolithography Machine, Desktop Class
Step aside, Makerbot. This is where the real personal-industrial-revolution is, light-curing 3D printing. Although it may not be as fast or cheap as plastic extrusion is, the level of detail and build uniformity you can achieve with a machine like this is unprecedented. No more striated layers and smoothing them out in an acetone vapor bath. What you model is what you get. The machine you see here is only $1000 more than the Makerbot Replicator 2, which makes it a steal in my book.
I believe there are a couple patents on the technology held by Stratsys, but they are due to expire early next year, so expect a flood of new 3D printer technologies like this to hit the consumer market soon.
So in conclusion, these are the technologies *I* think will be changing the Maker landscape in the coming years. Companies like Makerbot aren’t going anywhere soon, especially not with products like the Digitizer 3D scanner, but the world is about to get even cooler toys. And like I told a commenter on Youtube, engineering is all about picking the right tools for your job. Maybe ABS printing or a Shopbot CNC Router is perfect for you.
Nonetheless: Prepare yourself. AWESOME is coming.