How about a machine that builds – layer by layer – three-dimensional objects from plastics, metals, nylon, recycled paper, ceramics, chocolate and even living tissue? The technology has been around since the early 1980s, but has until now typically been used by industry and design for prototyping. Recent developments have now made small, consumer-friendly 3D printers accessible for around $2,000.
The Makerbot Thingomatic, for example, works with spools of plastic that move through an extruder that melts it. Guided by a digital computer-aided design (CAD) file, the Makerbot deposits the material in layers that instantly solidify. You can design your own objects, or download (and upload) designs from such online sites as Thingiverse.com.
Why would you want one? You can produce parts to replace broken household items, tools, jewellery, toys and more. Schools use them in teaching engineering, design and technology. But you don’t have to own your own to experiment – you can join a local hackerspace to access one, and services like Shapeways.com allow customers to order objects in a choice of materials.
Arduino micro-controllers are simple, single-board computers that allow anyone – hobbyists, artists, designers – to build programme-responsive electronic objects: anything from doorbells through water tank depth sensors to gadgets for gamers. There’s even a device that tweets when your houseplant needs watering! Invented by an Italian electronics firm, the Arduino costs about $30 preassembled, and the programming software is free, but the purist DIYer can build their own micro-controller using downloadable CAD files, available with an open-source licence.