Microlathe and Accelerating Returns in Rapid Prototyping

Rapid Prototyping is addictive. I knew it would be when I bought the Makerbot, but I didn’t know just how much. Since the moderate success of Dremelfuge, I’ve gone a step further into multi-part, assembled devices, and I’m proud of the result.

Microlathe is a Makerbot/Reprap printable Lathe that uses a Dremel for rotary power. I spent a day and a half designing the first draft of it in OpenSCAD, another evening printing the parts, and the minutes I could grab over the last few evenings testing it. The result? It’s fairly hazardous, requires careful balancing, and it works just fine on wood dowelling. So on the whole, a big success!

Here’s a link to a video of me demonstrating Microlathe. It’s taken on my HTC in low light, so the quality is poor; apologies! Microlathe draft two will merit High Definition, I think.

One of the reasons I designed and made Microlathe was because I wanted a free lathe. Another reason was to contribute to a pattern of accelerating returns I’ve become aware of and excited about recently, in the sphere of rapid prototyping.

When you give someone a tool, they can use that tool (within its limitations) to make things. You might reasonably expect someone with an axe and some trees to make fuel, but they could in principal master the art of the axe and use it to create lasting works like furniture or a shelter. It’s just really really hard to do with an axe, is all. A clever artisan might use his axe to make a simple mallet, which would enhance his ability to accurately control the force of the axe blade. He might use these to produce still more useful tools and products. This is an example of accelerating returns; tools making better tools to make better tools faster.

Leap forward, and give someone a rapid prototyping machine. These tools, be they laser cutters or 3D printers, are hugely open ended, and because they use CNC control the user can take his or her time in carefully planning each parameter of the final work before beginning, and even share the result if it works with other users. The essence of “Measure twice, cut once” in carpentry and many other crafts boils down to “If you muck up one step of the way, you’ve ruined the end result”. This reliance on expert skill and patience in creative or constructive arts has probably been one of the biggest barriers to people getting involved in making until recently, and with a CNC machine, it is no longer strictly necessary. This means you don’t have to spend years mastering the art of the axe just to make your mallet, you just need to click “print”.

So with this one starting tool, you can imagine a situation where a person can design/download and assemble a plethora of relatively complex tools in short order given only the cheap feedstock needed to run the Rapid Prototyper. That’s what I’m looking forward to and trying to drive forward, because this accelerating return is going to help push innovation to new heights at a grassroots level.

A Makerbot cost me about €750, all told (Of which €110 was shipping!). A full suite of tools might cost me that much or more, easily, but if they were printable it’d cost me a few extra euro. Probably less than 20. Given enough feedstock, I can even make the structural parts of another printer, and give that to my friend, who can make a fab lab of his own, etc. etc.

Obviously the Makerbot can’t make everything. For example, it can’t make its own heater barrel, which needs to be made out of metal. That task calls for a lathe. And now, you can print one of those. And because it’s open-source and available online, if it doesn’t work right or suit you as-is, you can just improve it.

Someday I’m hoping to see a printable CNC Router and Lathe on Thingiverse, so that I’ll be able to have my computer-controlled robot fablab build me almost anything I can desire or imagine, fast. The first thing I’ll probably make when it’s ready? Another Fab Lab!