Introduction to the Fabbers Archive

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by Arthur Fournier

excerpt from offering catalog presented by Arthur Fournier Fine & Rare LLC, 2017

3D scan of Marshall Burns' head by Viewpoint Datalabs, 1995
3D scan of Marshall Burns’ head, filename: “MB-Cybrw.3d,” captured on October 16, 1995 by Brett Gassaway of Viewpoint Datalabs, Los Angeles, CA.

Marshall Burns founded the Ennex family of corporations to “take on extraordinary challenges and opportunities” in 1975 in his native Canada, after dropping out of his sophomore year at MIT to hitchhike across the US and Mexico. At the time, high-tech entrepreneurship was still an exotic — and largely unknown — field.

The name Ennex invokes an English-language phonetic representation of the two letters in the Roman alphabet, “n” and “x.” In elementary mathematics, “n” is used to represent a known, given quantity, while “x” represents the unknown. Taken together as n to the power of x — or simply nx — the two characters represent the infinite potential available from combining what is known with that which is not yet known. For Burns, it’s shorthand for “raising knowledge to the power of imagination.”

While Ennex never became a household name, it did play an important role in the development and transmission of several cutting edge computer-based technologies from the research laboratory to the consumer marketplace.

The Birth of the PC Clone

'Why Pay Retail?' IBM PC clone advertisement in 'Wall Street Journal', 1982
“Why Pay Retail?” IBM PC clone advertisement published in Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1982

When IBM launched its model 5150 Personal Computer in August of 1981, its sophisticated design revolutionized the marketplace for home computers. Unfortunately, its high retail price placed the machine well out of reach for most consumers.

As a college graduate (B.S., MIT ’79) living in Los Angeles and working in home electronics sales, Marshall Burns sensed an opportunity. Since IBM had sourced most of its components and software from third party suppliers, a little detective work and ingenuity lead him to discover that he could easily build high-quality “PC clone” devices and advertise them to consumers at a significantly reduced price.

In May of 1982, Marshall Burns Computer Sales of Pasadena, CA, was born. It was the first company to market and sell a generic-brand, low-cost personal computer built around the proprietary technology of the revolutionary IBM Personal Computer. Components were sourced directly from IBM and its vendors (or their equivalents), and custom assembled into complete systems on demand. Prices were kept low by direct marketing without a storefront, by maintaining low inventories, and by requiring payment C.O.D. All units underwent 24-hour quality testing before being shipped, resulting in zero returns.

When Burns moved the fledgling company to Texas later that year (renaming it Ennex Technology Marketing, Inc. along the way), direct-to-consumer PC clone sales proved strong enough for the young entrepreneur to afford a small condominium on the East Side of Austin. They also earned him enough money to meet his goal of financing a graduate school education in physics at the University of Texas.

“Eventually, other people around campus started to get the idea of what I was doing,” Burns recalls. “One of them was a college freshman who started a similar company called ‘PCs Unlimited’ in his dorm room.”

“His name was Michael Dell.”

From Theoretical Physics to 3D Printers

Marshall Burns left the computer marketing and sales sector in the winter of 1982 to devote himself full time to graduate studies at UT Austin, where he pursued a Ph.D. in physics.

Logotype design for 'Desktop Manufacturing: The Next Revolution', Technical Insights, Inc., 1988
Logotype design for Desktop Manufacturing: The Next Revolution, Fort Lee, NJ: Technical Insights, Inc., 1988 (Emerging Technologies Series, 37)

Toward the end of his program, in October 1990, and thinking about what to do next, Burns attended a business plan workshop at the Austin Technology Incubator. There he saw a presentation by one of its tenant companies, DTM Corporation. The name stood for “DeskTop Manufacturing” and the presentation included video footage of a machine that used laser light and plastic powder to render a computer-based design into a solid, three-dimensional object.

“In that two-minute movie clip, I saw my future, and the future of humankind, flash before my eyes,” he recalls. “Suddenly, the Ph.D. I had been pursuing for eight years acquired new meaning.”

After spending the next few weeks hunkered down in the library reading everything he could find on the topic, Burns learned that DTM’s patented technology was only one of more than a dozen processes under investigation around the world for achieving the same objective. Another company by the name of 3D Systems had sold over a hundred of its machines to the likes of General Motors, Kodak, and Apple Computer. At the time, the technology was primarily marketed to industrial manufacturers as a solution for “rapid prototyping.” But Burns recognized that it had far wider potential than that name suggested. He began to refer to the devices as fabbers — a moniker he still uses today, short for “automated fabricators.”

“I’d spent most of the 1980s in graduate school because I believed that a new wave of technology, something more profound and more effectual than computers, was going to emerge from discoveries in modern physics,” he explains. “When I found out about automated fabrication, I felt that the technological revolution I had come to the University of Texas to prepare for was at hand.”

Burns completed his dissertation on “Nonlinear Resonance in the Hydrogen Atom” and it was approved by the faculty in April 1991. Nine days later he was in Minneapolis for his first job in his newly chosen industry, preparing the proceedings of “Desktop Manufacturing,” one of the first conferences on automated fabrication.

Marshall Burns' driving route for first autofab research trip, 1991
Marshall Burns’ driving route for first autofab research trip, May 4 to September 17, 1991 (Enlarge)

To get there, he embarked on a cross-country road trip. Afterwards, he spent the next four months roving the country in an effort to meet as many of the key inventors, entrepreneurs, and users of automated fabrication as he could.

“On that trip, I met Scott Crump, the founder and CEO of Stratasys, Terry Feeley, a laser entrepreneur behind the development of the Quadrax fabber, Haim Levi, who represented Israel’s Cubital fabber in the US, Efrim Fudim of Light Sculpting, inventor of one of the highest-precision fabbers at the time, David Gore, working on one of the first ideas for fabbing in metal, and Peter Sferro, head of the stereolithography (SLA) lab at Ford Motor Company, and many others. I met Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, a few months later.”

For Burns, meeting Sferro was a particular high point. “In Pete’s lab at Ford, I laid eyes for the first time on a stereolithographic 3D printer. I had seen DTM’s Sinterstation in action, but the SLA had a more dramatic appearance. Watching the spot of laser light dancing across the surface of an eerily glowing vat of resin with a partially formed object gestating beneath the surface, I felt as if I had stepped onto the set of a science fiction movie.”

Burns documented that trip, and other trips and meetings that followed, in vivid detail. He kept a personal journal of observations and reflections, and started what he came to call his “knowledge base,” a comprehensive, computer-enabled database of relevant contacts, meetings, correspondence, publications, research findings, and other information with an intricate system of cross-referencing links. With the fastidious attention to minutiae of a scientist trained to collect and analyze complex data, Burns continued to develop the Ennex Knowledge Base over the course of his career in fabbers.

During and after this epic journey, through the summer and fall of 1991, he applied for jobs at 3D Systems, Ciba Geigy, DTM, Helisys, MIT, Stratasys, and other players in the emerging market. All of them turned him down.

Undaunted and determined to pursue a career in automated fabrication, Burns founded Ennex Fabrication Technologies, which served as the basis for engagements as a consultant, public speaker, and evangelist for the untapped potential of 3D printing. He continued to attend conferences and built an impressive library of print resources in the field, including books and journals. He also began to collect 3D printed objects, gathered from various labs and manufacturing facilities that he visited. On four additional “fabber odysseys” across Europe and Japan during the 1990s, Burns methodically built his collection of objects produced by the machines at the focus of his work. The collection was an invaluable teaching tool in his consulting, helping clients understand both the possibilities and the limitations of the various machines on the market, as well as those that were still under development.

Cover of 'Automated Fabrication' by Marshall Burns, PTR Prentice Hall, 1993
Burns, Marshall. Automated Fabrication. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: PTR Prentice Hall, 1993.

In the midst of this, Burns was contracted to write what would become the first commercial monograph on the subject, Automated Fabrication: Improving Productivity in Manufacturing (Englewood Cliffs, NJ : PTR Prentice Hall, 1993). Following its publication, he was invited to speak at conferences from Japan to Nigeria and consulted to IBM, Dow Chemical, the US Navy, and numerous other clients on how to use or develop automated fabrication devices for manufacturing, medical modeling, and other applications. He continued his writing career as a contributor to Rapid Prototyping Report (San Diego, Calif. : CAD/CAM Publishing, 1993), the leading newsletter of the industry, and other journals.

As the autofab consulting business expanded, Burns developed the concept for a new technology which he hoped to bring to market for consumer use as the Genie Studio Fabber. For the remainder of the 1990s, he strove to build a team of engineers and business professionals to make the project a viable enterprise. But while Burns and his colleagues dreamt of bringing sophisticated prototyping power to homes and businesses across the world, angel investors were chasing a different quarry: projects rooted in the virtual realm of the World Wide Web, not the physical universe of consumer products and manufacturing.

Trispectives design of an offset fabber mechanism by Behrokh Khoshnevis for Ennex, 1996
Trispectives design of an offset fabber mechanism by Behrokh Khoshnevis for Ennex, 1996

Stymied by engineering challenges and a shortage of operating capital, the Genie failed to launch. The missed opportunity was dispiriting, and the project simmered while Burns earned a living with teaching and consulting, and traveled the world in search of new meaning in the early years of the new millennium.

By 2005, as Burns was turning away from tech entrepreneurship, the Ennex Autofab Collection was placed in storage, where it has remained to this day as a unique time capsule documenting the history of rapid prototyping and automated fabrication in its infancy.

Slide from Marshall Burns' keynote presentation for Copy Club Conference, 2001
Slide from Marshall Burns’ keynote presentation for Copy Club Conference, 2001

As it turned out, the future of automated fabrication and desktop manufacturing would be open source, and not so much a product of venture capitalist funding. While Burns explored the wilds of Northern California, the Nevada dessert, Kenya, India, and Sri Lanka, a rising cadre of graduate students and D.I.Y. engineers built on the achievements of his generation of autofab technologies to establish the protocols of RepRap (“replicating rapid prototype”), which have lead to commercially viable home 3D printing systems including MakerBot and other popular devices over the course of the last decade.

Despite the “curse” of having been too early to market with his dreams for the Genie, Burns has no regrets. He hopes that placing the Ennex archive with a tier-one museum, library, or research institution will allow scientists and cultural historians of technology to learn from both his success and failures.

“My work on digital fabrication in the 1990s was an exciting career,” he says. “I’m proud of the contribution I made and I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to work with amazing people on amazing projects, and to travel all over the world in the process.”

“Today, I apply my experience as a scientist and businessman to understanding issues of social justice and I’m looking forward to making new breakthroughs in that domain. In the meantime, I’m excited to see a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs carrying forward on what they now call 3D printers.”

Copyright © 2016..20, Ennex Research Corporation. All rights reserved.
Archive || Highlights || Docs || 1. Artifacts || 2. Industry || 3. Ennex || 4. Demo || 5. Offset || 6. Digital: E, F, W, Z || 7. MB || 8. KB