'tis the season once again...

16 December 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, sapient lifeforms of all ages: welcome to the holiday season. I just wish that it didn't involve so much road rage in the DC metroplex, let alone being greeted with an upraised middle finger rather than a wave of good cheer. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but wasn't this traditionally the time of year to be good to one another (if no other time) and practice random acts of senseless kindness, especially during a season that seems to be blowing through like a nor'easter this time 'round. I think I've had a chance to blink once, maybe twice since Thanksgiving, and BANG!, here we are, halfway through December. This should also be taken to imply that I'm scrambling to get my Yule shopping done as soon as I can because next week is Yule. Thankfully, not a few packages reside in the library next to my sewing machine right now, so I'm not that bad off.

Later Friday evening, after sparring practice (which I passed on in favor of working out at home) Lyssa and I met up with Hasufin, Orthaevelve, and Jarin for dinner. Jarin suggested that we try a new restaurant (for us, anyway) in Falls Church called the Dogfish Head Alehouse (6363 Leesburg Pike; Seven Corners Center; Falls Church, Virginia; 22044; phone 703-534-3342; fax 703-534-6538). If you've ever perused the specialty beer section of Whole Paycheque (if you live in such a state) you've seen their wares for sale. What many people do not know, however, is that they also run a small restaurant chain (four locations or so) in the DC area. When we arrived around 2100 EST5EDT or so, the place was still packed with the Friday dinnertime rush, which is a pretty good sign for a restaurant. It's also a pretty straightforward restaurant; while it's not a dive or a sports bar, you will find a lot of dead critter that's done a hitch or two over a hot grill on the menu. Their specials are excellent, however - the appetizer Lyssa and I shared was a queso dip which incorporated chunks of grilled chicken and hot wing sauce with a side of tortilla chips. Horribly bad for you but tasty. Pretty much everything there was good, from the appetizers to the burgers that most of us order to the grilled chicken sandwich. I'm definitely going to stop back in there the next time I'm after dinner in that neck of the woods. I give it two flareguns.

The rest of my weekend was pretty much filled by banging away on my workstation from work, which conked out about two months ago. I haven't been all that concerned about it because I spent most of my time in the field and not in the office, but I've also had that particular box sitting in my home office for about as long. After spending almost four days continuously hammering on and swearing at it, I've decided to swap out the DVD-ROM drive because said drive throws errors at roughly the same place on every disk I throw at it. If I wasn't doing that I was off hunting for Yule gifts for people; praise be to Amazon, without whose wishlists we would all be in serious trouble at this time of year. Mad Scientist Coffee on Saturday afternoon brought with it an early and unexpected exchange of gifts (Orthaevelve gave me a few samples of trinitite and a beautiful cast brass sundial that she'd found in her travels and gave me a couple of books to give to Lyssa; Jarin gave me an electronics lab from Radio Shack that I'm going to be having some fun with soon). I hadn't gotten anyone anything yet, partially because I'd lost track of time, but for those of you reading this, I haven't forgotten. Packages are steadily trickling in.

Anyway, we wound up on the topic of genetic engineering, and from there one of our favorite topics, custom practical bio-modifications. I'm not entirely certain when or how we got off on a tangent about von Neumann machines and then nano replicators, but that reminded me of something that I'd read about and then filed away in the back of my mind.. desktop fabrication systems, or fabbers. I've you've never seen one before (and not many have, they're still a pretty new technology), a fabber, or 3D printer, is a device which produces objects one layer at a time by extruding successive layers of material (usually melted plastic) onto a platform. To watch one in action, check out this video of a Fab@Home demonstration. The discussion at hand suddenly reminded me of an article I found in the HacDC blog the day before: the weekend of the 24th of January, HacDC will be holding a RepRap build-a-thon at the space as a community event.

RepRap is a 3d printing system which is unique in that the whole shebang - hardware designs, firmware, and software - are licensed under the GNU General Public License v2, which means that you're free to build them, you're free to sell them, and you're free to do whatever you want to the designs, but whatever changes you make they would prefer be made publically available under the same license. You also have to either make available the source code to the software and the blueprints, or you have to tell people where they can be downloaded (note: whatever objects you make with a RepRap do not fall under this license unless you want them to). RepRap is also unique in that, unlike other fabbers, it is capable of replicating itself to a certain degree. The specialized pieces, like the corner brackets, connectors, gears, sliders, and what have you can be manufactured by another RepRap or fabricated in some other way of your choice. I've heard the Jake von Slatt was talking about building one out of brass to add to his workshop.

After explaining what the RepRap v1 (codenamed Darwin) was, of course we started brainstorming.. building othere RepRaps is just the beginning. Think of building hard-to-replace parts for your car when it's a few years out of date.. making a new chassis for your laptop when you get bored with the old design. Making a new panel for your cellphone if it breaks when you drop it. Just about anything you could carve or sculpt by hand you could turn into a mesh using CAD software and print out in a RepRap in a couple of hours. However, this is a new technology insofar as people like you and I are concerned. Large-scale fabbers, like those used in factories and large design shops, are several times larger and cost multiple thousands of dollars. They're also much faster. The RepRap costs about $400us to construct, can fit on your desk, and can print a door handle (for example) in an afternoon. 3d printers often use some form of low-melting point (150-160 degrees Fahrenheit) as their feedstock rather than other materials. As it stands now, there's no way that you could build an engine block using one of these. Something that isn't obvious about any sort of fabrication system is that the final product will need to be finished somehow - rough edges must be filed down, stray threads of plastic must be removed, and often fabbed components must be assembled. Also, fabbing requires at least a little knowledge of 3d design to give the fabber something to worth with, and I've found that it's a skillset with a very steep learning curve. The technology isn't yet at the point where an automatic factory in your basement could build a custom device for you (Iron Man to the contrary).

I hasten to add the important word 'yet'. There is a small number of people hacking on this technology and others like it (enough that there are users' groups in a few places) but not enough to have reached critical mass as I write this entry. That's one of the things that HacDC is hoping to do with the build-a-thon in January, which is get more people interested in rapid prototyping and playing around with these technologies. For example, some of the things that Hasufin, Orthaevelve, Jarin, and I came up with over coffee included scaling one up a few sizes, hacking the firmware to take into account the bigger production space (I'm pretty good with assembly language so I think I could pull it off), and building extrusion heads for other construction materials (like precious metal clay). I've also been toying with the idea of building a milling head to carve material rather than lay it out in sections.

Needless to say, I'm fascinated by this technology, and I can't wait to get my hands dirty building one.

Back to work and the holiday season madness that's consuming us all.