The door of a dry-cleaner-size storefront in an industrial park in Wareham, Massachusetts, an hour south of Boston, might not look like a portal to the future of American manufacturing, but it is. This is the headquarters of Local Motors, the first open source car company to reach production. Step inside and the office reveals itself as a mind-blowing example of the power of micro-factories.
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In June, Local Motors will officially release the Rally Fighter, a $50,000 off-road (but street-legal) racer. The design was crowdsourced, as was the selection of mostly off-the-shelf components, and the final assembly will be done by the customers themselves in local assembly centers as part of a “build experience.” Several more designs are in the pipeline, and the company says it can take a new vehicle from sketch to market in 18 months, about the time it takes Detroit to change the specs on some door trim. Each design is released under a share-friendly Creative Commons license, and customers are encouraged to enhance the designs and produce their own components that they can sell to their peers.
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Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.
Many are only just getting their heads around the idea of 3D printing but scientists at MIT are already working on an upgrade: 4D printing. At the TED conference in Los Angeles, architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits showed how the process allows objects to self-assemble. It could be used to install objects in hard-to-reach places such as underground water pipes, he suggested. It might also herald an age of self-assembling furniture, said experts.
TED fellow Mr Tibbits, from the MIT's (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) self-assembly lab, explained what the extra dimension involved. “We're proposing that the fourth dimension is time and that over time static objects will transform and adapt,” he told the BBC. The process uses a specialised 3D printer that can create multi-layered materials. It combines a strand of standard plastic with a layer made from a “smart” material that can absorb water. The water acts as an energy source for the material to expand once it is printed. “The rigid material becomes a structure and the other layer is the force that can start bending and twisting it,” said Mr Tibbits.
Who has never been in the situation that he had a set of data where some of them just didn’t seem to fit. A simple adjusting of the numbers or omitting of strange ones could solve the problem. Or so you would think. I certainly have been in such a situation more than once, and looking back, I am glad that I left the data unchanged. At least in one occasion my “petty” preformed theory proved to be wrong and the ‘strange data’ I had found were corresponding very well with another concept that I hadn’t thought of at the time.
Kor and his team built the three-wheel, two-passenger vehicle at RedEye, an on-demand 3-D printing facility. The printers he uses create ABS plastic via Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). The printer sprays molten polymer to build the chassis layer by microscopic layer until it arrives at the complete object. The machines are so automated that the building process they perform is known as “lights out” construction, meaning Kor uploads the design for a bumper, walk away, shut off the lights and leaves. A few hundred hours later, he’s got a bumper. The whole car – which is about 10 feet long – takes about 2,500 hours.
3D printing provides an opportunity to change the way we think about the world around us.  It merges the physical and the digital. People on opposite sides of the globe can collaborate on designing an object and print out identical prototypes every step of the way. Instead of purchasing one of a million identical objects built in a faraway factory, users can customize pre-designed objects and print them out at home. Just as computers have allowed us to become makers of movies, writers of articles, and creators of music, 3D printers allow everyone to become creators of things.
Ultimately then, the burden is on the community and the organizations that host the community not to blindly assume that copyright covers everything. This is not to say that copyright should be rejected, or that legal orders should be ignored. Instead, it is a reminder of the value of healthy skepticism. If someone is asserting copyright over an object, take a moment to consider if copyright can even apply in that case. Make assertions of infringement public so that the wider community can understand who is claiming what kinds of rights.