MET:Constructivism and Personal Fabrication
Authored by Nicola Einarson (March 2012)
Personal fabrication is a constructivist process wherein tangible objects are created through the manipulation and interfacing of digital designs, software, and small-scale printing units. This process may be seen as a reversal of digitization, termed by Glen Bull and Joe Garofalo of the University of Virginia as a “Bits to Atoms” process, and is achieved through interfacing digital software with fabrication hardware .
The scope of personal fabrication, from the design of digital blueprints through to the creation of physical objects, is one of multiliteracies. The process of fabrication combines visual with spatial reasoning and encompasses science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) concepts; but has also been observed to be applicable educational fields such as art, history, music, and more. Personal fabrication may also be used to create specifically tailored assistive technologies, instruments, and other tools and devices found in educational settings.
Academics and theorists are in general agreement that the emerging potentials of personal fabrication constitutes a disruptive technology. The components required for personal fabrication will evolve gradually and appear more frequently as barriers to implementation decrease.
Increasing authentic engagement with STEM fields is an important component of remaining nationally competitive in research, development and global economies. The emergent technology of desktop manufacturing, the fastest growing segment of personal fabrication technologies, provide a constructivist learning environment for STEM experiences appropriate to a myriad of educational settings. The topic of desktop manufacturing (3D printing) is becoming more frequently discussed amongst leading organizations in education and technology, including by members of the National Technology Leadership Coalition and the International Society for Technology in Education in 2010; and explored by governmental agencies such as the Canadian Council on Learning (2011) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (2010). This increasing focus may be due, in part, to the declining costs and increasing ubiquity associated with personal-scale manufacturing processes .
Open-source appropriate technology
The hardware and software required for personal manufacturing systems have been identified as Open Source Appropriate Technologies (OSAT). Because of the nature of open source technology, there is little commercial interest in producing and refining these technologies. Currently, open-source produced desktop manufacturing (3D printing) systems can produce items of slightly lesser quality than commercial manufacturing, but at about one percent of the cost .
3D printing machines that can reproduce their own parts may be of particular interest to educational institutions, as the fixed cost per unit will decrease with each successive unit produced. This is the case with the Replicating Rapidprotyper (RepRap) machine, a fully open-source 3D printing system developed by Adrian Bowyer of Bath University. The RepRap can currently produce about 50% of its own parts, which will increase with the development of personally-fabricated electronic circuitry.
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)
The use of personal fabrication machines will contribute to authentic and scaffolded experiences with engineering . The creation of gears, for example, may lead to their assembly into simple machines, which may then be themselves combined into more complex machines; a process which may occur over many grade or age levels. Further to this, fabrication machines may be used to incorporate STEM instruction into multiple educational areas, beyond those typically associated with science, technology, engineering and math.
Connections between STEM fields and fine art are often subtle. For example, many visual arts are related to mathematical proportions such as the golden ratio, and music is closely related to mathematics. Personal fabrication has the potential to incorporate STEM instruction more explicitly into fine arts instruction, and vice versa. Eisenberg and Buechley (2008) posit that fabrication provides an avenue for the reintroduction of environmental aesthetics, personal expression, and intellectual style; themes that have been implicitly suppressed by the affordabnces of digital mediums . Notably, fabrication enables students to create physical artifacts to track the evolution and complexity of their their digital designs.
3D fabrication is a means to enrich various aspects of social studies education to supplement and marry STEM concepts and provide a new avenue for historical preservation . Weber and Malone have demonstrated that personal fabrication may be used to replicate archaeological artifacts for sharing, export, manipulation and consideration without threat of deterioration . Rare, unique, or culturally sensitive objects such as human bones or religious artifacts may be replicated to reduce restriction on transport and facilitate. Weber and Malone demonstrated the possibility of using noncontact 3D scanners to create highly accurate digital blueprints of bones, which were then fabricated using a successive layer printing process. The authors conclude that the ability to inexpensively replicate models will not only benefit the academic community, but will inspire young learners and the public in the field of archaeology.
Hod Lipson and his team at Cornell contend that 3D manufacturing is a convenient method to reintroduce kinematic teaching models into engineering instruction and experimentation, something that has been lost over the past quarter century with the increasing power, versatility, and cost effectiveness of virtual modelling .
The Cornell team used fused deposition modeling to create authentic prototype models, demonstrating that this 3D fabrication afforded sufficient levels of release, warp, friction, and etching to produce working models. The team argues that a physical embodiment of modelling is essential for intuitive appreciation of the critical concepts of motion and force. The digital blueprints tested in the Cornell experiments are compiled in an digital library and visitors may download, 3D-print, and interact with their own personally fabricated historical mechanisms.
The potential for open-source 3D fabrication to contribute to self-directed sustainable development has been explored in the context of developing nations.  These findings may be extrapolated when viewing educational institutions through a sustainability lens. Small-scale fabrication methods may be explored by educational institutions to provide access to tools and devices that may have previously been cost prohibitive, including devices for students with special needs, musical instruments, and specialized replacement parts.
Researchers Amy Hurst and Jasmine Tobias have explored the ways in which fabrication may be utilised to create assistive technology supports for students with special needs. The term assistive technology broadly refers to "...any product, device or equipment that is acquired...to accomplish something that was not otherwise possible." . This may include medical and non-medical devices ranging from crutches to hearing aids, wheelchairs, handrails, prosthesis, and more. The process of personal manufacturing may also improve the adoption process and subsequent adoption rates of devices, as the creation process addresses common reasons that assistive devices are abandoned. Such reasons include user involvement in selection, ease of procurement, device performance, and change in user ability and preferences .
Ken Van Laatum provides an illustration of personal-scale fabrication to create a musical instrument, in this case, a carbon-fiber violin. In this instance, Van Laatum also provides an example of a "layperson" creating and sharing digital designs and step-by-step instructions for any interested person to attempt their own. Van Laatum has also included production notes and an audio sample of the instrument's performance.
Creation of such devices at a district or school level may prove to be more cost effective and flexible than purchasing such devices from specialty suppliers. Furthermore, a device that has become obsolete has the potential for its component medium to be re-purposed.
3D printing is the fastest growing type of personal fabrication and has evolved from the large-scale rapid prototyping industry. The term "3D printer" has become a relatively generic term for any small-scale printing unit that compiles print medium into a form or shape. Different methods of 3D printing may incorporate a separate fixative between print layers, layers merged through melting, or supporting structural reinforcements.
Methods of 3D printing commonly employed by desktop fabrication units include:
- Laminated object manufacturing (LOM)
- Selective laser sintering (SLS)
- Photo polymerization (stereolithography, SLA)
- Fused deposition modeling (FDM) 
Subtractive manufacturing is, as its name implies, the creation of an final object from a larger raw material. This may be achieved through conventional manual machining processes, but is increasingly achieved through computer numerical control. Larger raw materials may be cut with blades, lasers, lathes, or a variety of other means. In subtractive processes, 2D pieces are most often created, which may be used as-is or may be fitted together to create 3D objects.
Subtractive manufacturing methods include, but are not limited to :
- Numerically controlled routing and milling machines (CNC)
- Computer controlled sewing and embroidery machines
- Laser cutters and engravers
The physical requirements of 3D printing include the printing machine and printing medium. There are a variety of 3D printers on the commercial marketplace, and some of these units have been evaluated for their potential use in educational settings . Depending on the educational context and available resources, evaluation criteria may include cost, size, complexity and safety, and availability of print medium.
Print medium is another physical requirement of personal fabrication. At this time, plastic is the predominant print medium, but a variety of other print mediums are available including ceramic, metal, food, human cartilage, and more. These choice of print medium will depend on the resources available to and the desired outcomes of, the educational institution.
Personal fabrication requires a digital blueprint of the object to be fabricated. Digital designs may be created via 3D scanning of a physical object, as demonstrated by Weber and Malone (2011), or may be created "from scratch" using computer assisted drawing (CAD) software such as AutoCAD, Google SketchUp or Rhinoceros. Digital designs may also be purchased for a fee, or for free, from online design repositories such as Shapeways, Sculpteo, or Instructables. Downloaded blueprints may have the option of user manipulation before fabrication.
The fabrication unit will also require appropriate software to interface between the computer and the fabrication electronics. This software will depend on the needs of the fabrication unit.
Communities of Practice
Communities of practice for personal fabrication may be grouped by fabrication technique, open-source philosophy, academic roots, physical location, or any number of variables; with individuals and institutions being involved with one or many physical or digital community networks.
Some thriving communities of practice have their roots in academic laboratories devoted to the study and development of personal fabrication technologies, notably the Fab@Home and RepRap projects. Fab@Home is the work of Hod Lipson’s Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory, and RepRap is the product of Adrian Bowyer of Bath University. Both RepRap and Fab@Home continue the open-source research and development of personal-scale fabrication technologies. These two projects have networked individuals across the globe, providing online platforms to share information related to personal fabrication. These communities of practice encourage sharing of knowledge through experimentation, documentation and discussion.
Physical gathering places devoted personal fabrication have been colloquially termed "hackerspaces". Services, equipment, and support in public hackerspaces may range in form and function. Such locations may be for profit or nonprofit, may be membership-based, and may provide education towards personal fabrication technologies. Public hackerspaces may or may not be associated with academic communities of practice.
The nature of OSAT and the decentralized development of digital designs results in a slower growth rate than commercial research and design, however, commercial services exist for individuals to access digital designs and order objects ion-demand n the absence of personal access to manufacturing infrastructure. These commercially based communities involve marketplaces in which users may buy or sell digital designs and objects created from those digital designs. The manufacturing process is generally invisible to commercial communities of practice. Commercial services may be a way for individuals or institutions to experiment with CAD software and personally fabricated objects before investing training, hardware, and the associated infrastructure of personal fabrication.
Challenges to Implementation
Consumer protection is a problematic aspect for personal fabrication, and is a significant barrier to effective and widespread uptake of personal fabrication in public educational settings . Safety of students and teachers requires both safe hardware and safe print medium; along with safe digital blueprints. Examples of problems with consumer protection include the culpability of toxic print medium ; dangerous digital designs either through faulty design (ie, a fabricated object breaks and results in injury,) or through explicit design (ie, a student fabricates a knife or even a gun). The legal liability issues stemming from these issues in unclear, and until best practices are established, they may hinder effective implementation in schools.
To date, there has been little research focused on the topic of 3D fabrication and intellectual property (IP) and copyright law. The four main classes of IP law that may be affected by 3D printing include copyright, design protection, patent, and registered trade marks.  These classes are complicated by international differences and protections, and issues of origin, access site, and infraction.
RepRap Wiki: Open-source 3D Printer project with the goal of self-replication
Fab@Home: Platform of open-source 3D printers and programs
MakerBot Industries: A low-cost commercial 3D printing platform
Hackerspace Wiki: Socially networked communities of fabricators
Ponoko: 3D printing marketplace/community
Shapeways: 3D printing marketplace/community
i.Materialise: Commercial 3D Printing Service
- Bull, G., Garofalo, J. (2009, May). Personal fabrication systems: From bits to atoms. Learning and Leading with Technology, 36, 10-12.
- Bradshaw, S., Bowyer, A. and Haufe, P., 2010. The intellectual property implications of low-cost 3D printing. ScriptEd, 7(1), 5-31.
- Bull, G., Maddox, C., Marks, G., McAnear, A., Schmidt, D., Schrum, L., Smaldino, S., Spector, M., Sprague, D., Thompson, A. (2010). Educational implications of the digital fabrication revolution. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 42(4), 331-338.
- Eisenberg, M., Buechley, L. (2008). Pervasive fabrication: Making construction ubiquitous in education. Journal of Software, 3(4), 331-338.
- Lipson, H., Moon, F. C., Hai, J., and Paventi, C., 2004, “3D-Printing the History of Mechanisms,” Journal of Mechanical Design, 127, 1029–1033.
- Weber, J.A., Malone, E. (2011, January). Exporting virtual material culture: Cheap and easy methods to preserve and share data. The SAA Archaeological Record, 11(1), 15-18.
- Pearce, J.M., Morris-Blair, C., Laciak, K.J., Andrews, R., Nosrat, A., Zelenika-Zovko, I. (2010). 3D printing of open source appropriate technologies for self-directed sustainable development. Journal of Sustainable Development, 3(4), 17-29.
- Hurst, A., & Tobias, J. (2011). Empowering individuals with do-it-yourself assistive technology. Proceedings of the 13th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility. 11-18.
- Phillips, B. and Zhao, H. 1993. Predictors of assistive technology abandonment. Assistive Technology. 5(1): 36-45.
- Lipson, H., Kurman, M. (2010). Factory @ home: The emerging economy of personal fabrication. Report commissioned by the Whitehouse Office of Science & Technology Policy, 2010.
- Helmer, W., Mobbs, D. (2011). An evaluation of some low-cost rapid prototyping systems for educational use. Proceedings of the 2011 Midwest Section Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education.
Bradshaw, S., Bowyer, A. and Haufe, P., 2010. The intellectual property implications of low-cost 3D printing. ScriptEd, 7(1), 5-31. doi:10.2966/scrip.070110.5
Bull, G., Garofalo, J. (2009, May). Personal fabrication systems: From bits to atoms. Learning and Leading with Technology, 36, 10-12. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/PDFS/EJ843333.pdf
Bull, G., Maddox, C., Marks, G., McAnear, A., Schmidt, D., Schrum, L., Smaldino, S., Spector, M., Sprague, D., Thompson, A. (2010). Educational implications of the digital fabrication revolution. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 42(4), 331-338. doi: 10.1007/s11528-010-0423-2
Eisenberg, M., Buechley, L. (2008). Pervasive fabrication: Making construction ubiquitous in education. Journal of Software, 3(4), 331-338. doi: 10.1109/PERCOMW.2007.93
Helmer, W., Mobbs, D. (2011). An evaluation of some low-cost rapid prototyping systems for educational use. Proceedings of the 2011 Midwest Section Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education. Retrieved from http://www.asee.org/documents/sections/midwest/2011/ASEE-MIDWEST_0011_e68ec3.pdf
Hurst, A., & Tobias, J. (2011). Empowering individuals with do-it-yourself assistive technology. Proceedings of the 13th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility. 11-18. doi: 10.1145/2049536.2049541
Lipson, H., Kurman, M. (2010). Factory @ home: The emerging economy of personal fabrication. Report commissioned by the Whitehouse Office of Science & Technology Policy. Retrieved from http://f.cl.ly/items/3h3T1M0u2f353H3A2w06/FactoryAtHome.pdf
Lipson, H., Moon, F. C., Hai, J., and Paventi, C., 2004, “3D-Printing the History of Mechanisms,” Journal of Mechanical Design, 127, 1029–1033. Weber, J.A., Malone, E. (2011, January). Exporting virtual material culture: Cheap and easy methods to preserve and share data. The SAA Archaeological Record, 11(1), 15-18.
Pearce, J.M., Morris-Blair, C., Laciak, K.J., Andrews, R., Nosrat, A., Zelenika-Zovko, I. (2010). 3D printing of open source appropriate technologies for self-directed sustainable development.Journal of Sustainable Development, 3(4), 17-29. Retrieved from http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/jsd/article/view/6984/6385
Phillips, B. and Zhao, H. 1993. Predictors of assistive technology abandonment. Assistive Technology. 5(1): 36-45. doi: 10.1080/10400435.1993.10132205