If you have a good memory, you know that I’ve written about 3D printers. Technically, I grew up with the laser printer; my first computer industry job (part-time while getting an English PhD) was with Imagen, a startup that built the first laser printer that cost under $20,000, then the first that cost under $10,000, then under $7,000, and died a slow death after Apple produced the first that cost under $5000. Now a laser printer costs a few hundred. And I’ve been cheering as 3D printers followed the the same price curve.
But even as I’ve been cheering, I’ve had this nagging doubt in the back of my head. So I can 3D-print my own chess set. Cool. So what? Sure, you can do great things with them (enclosures for projects; every DIY-bio lab I’ve visited has a 3D printer stashed somewhere). While a 3D printer is an important step in bringing 21st-century tooling to the home hacker, they’re still fairly limited.
Last night, the other shoe dropped. Otherfab, a project of Saul Griffiths’ Otherlab, has a new Kickstarter project for Othermill: a home computer-controlled milling machine. A milling machine is a large, versatile beast that uses a high-speed cutting bit to sculpt material (often metal) into the desired shape. Instead of adding layers of plastic or some other material, like a 3D printer, a milling machine cuts material away. If you’ve ever visited machine shops, you know that milling machines are where the magic happens. Particularly state-of-the-art computer controlled mills. They’re big, they’re expensive, and they can do just about anything. Putting one in the home shop — that’s revolutionary. A printer combined with a mill (additive and subtractive processes): that’s an exciting combination.
Otherfab’s mill is intended for making custom printed circuit boards; in a home environment, cutting away unneeded copper is much preferable to using acids to etch boards (I’ve made my own boards, and I know), and gives you more immediate feedback than sending a design off to a fabrication facility. But I don’t really think this is about PC boards and electronics. As the Kickstarter points out, their mill can be used to make anything that fits: it cuts metal, wood, wax, and plastic. I can’t wait to see what people use it for. And if we’re going to get serious about reinventing and re-envisioning manufacturing, home milling machines are essential infrastructure.
Othermill reached funding in under 24 hours; they have stretch goals ranging from $100K (already passed) up to a million. It looks like, when they have a commercially available unit, the price will be somewhere around $1500, though I’m just guessing; I’d also guess that the price will continue to drop as it did with 3D printers.
I don’t know, writing about Kickstarters could end up being too much fun.