My Journey in Fabbers
In October, 1990, I was struggling to finish my Ph.D. in physics at the University of Texas at Austin. My research was on quantum chaos. I went to a workshop presented by the Austin Technology Incubator that featured some of the new companies starting up there. One of them was DTM Corporation, whose name stood for desktop manufacturing. They showed a video of a machine making a little turbine blade out of plastic powder and a digital description on a computer. In that two-minute movie clip, I saw my future, and the future of humankind, flash before my eyes. Was this really possible? Had technology finally arrived at a point where it could make arbitrary products of human description from amorphous material?
I spent the next three weeks in the library reading everything I could find on this subject. I discovered that there was a tiny industry just being born that various people called rapid prototyping, desktop manufacturing, or solid freeform fabrication. A handful of companies were launching products using a brilliant variety of techniques to bring about the magic of manifesting real, physical products from raw materials and digital data. Some of those companies are around today, still struggling to catch the attention of the world. Others have died or been acquired by the survivors. New companies have appeared, and research projects have sprung up at hundreds of universities, industrial companies, and government laboratories around the world to study new ideas in this field.
I emerged from the library with a new inspiration for my career. I quickly finished my dissertation and moved on to find a role for myself in this new industry. One of the first conferences in the field was about to take place and I got myself an assignment to edit the proceedings and turn them into an industry report.1 I followed that conference with a four-month long road trip, on which I visited most of the inventors and start-up companies working on this type of technology in the United States and Canada, and many users of the early machines available at that time as well.
That exploration of the technology and the industry eventually led to the publication of the first major book on the subject, Automated Fabrication, published by Prentice Hall in 1993. In that book, and in other writing and talks, I rejected the name, rapid prototyping, which was becoming popular in other circles, because it seemed short-sighted and limiting. In a speech I gave in 1994, I complained that calling the machines in this industry prototypers is like calling an automobile a grocery cart because one of its first important uses was in rounding up supplies for the family. I prefered to call these machines fabricators because that is what they do they make things. After a few years, I got tired of saying all the syllables in fabricator, and began to use the shorted form, fabber. Reaction in the industry has been mixed. Some people think its a cool term, others think Im out of my mind.
The exploration also led me to think about new ways of accomplishing the magic of fabbers. The same year that the book came out I filed for my first patent on a new concept, which eventually became known as Offset Fabbing. I found a couple of enthusiastic college students to help build a proof-of-concept prototype, which actually worked, and we built several small plastic models. The patent finally issued in 1996 and I started to devote my energies to commercializing the technology and bringing a product to market. Around this same time, another radical technology was taking the world by storm, and the Internet wave washed right over me and most of my fellow fabricator entrepreneurs, nearly drowning us.
By 2000, I had written and rewritten my business plan dozens of times, had meetings with billionaires, Fortune 500 executives, venture capitalists, and Washington insiders, had assembled a team of five professional engineers who worked with me on nights and weekends and made a lot of progress on building a new production prototype. We got an advance order, with a cash deposit, from Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. But we fell short. We were not able to solve all the engineering problems in order to complete a final, working product. The project fell apart, and I came to sense that I knew the meaning of a broken heart.
In the preface to my 1993 book, I wrote about seeing that DTM video in Austin, and I said, Suddenly, the Ph.D. I had been pursuing for eight years acquired new meaning. I quickly finished my dissertation and moved on to find a role for myself in this new industry. The nature of that role is, as this book goes to press, still seeking definition. I anticipate that millions of other people will also redefine their lives works as autofab rises in prominence through the coming decades. The ten years since I wrote that have been an adventure and a roller-coaster ride. Had the Offset Fabber made it to market, I would probably not have the time to be writing this new book now. Instead, my role in the fabber industry is again, or still, seeking definition. I still anticipate that fabbers will rise in prominence in the coming decades and millions of people will work in this industry.
Maybe you will be one of them.
Welcome to the fabber revolution.
P.S. Ive introduced myself here with some background on my involvement with fabbers, the technology at the core of digital manufacturing. If youd like to know more about other aspects of my life and career, let me invite you to my personal Web site, MBurns.com.