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VoxelFabbing: Rapid Assembly using digital materials

I’m convinced that the future of manufacturing will lie in digital materials and rapid assembly (or VoxelFab as I’m completely self-servingly calling it from time to time).  The work of  Jon Hiller and Hod Lipson of Cornell inspired me to create this blog and I currently believe that they are well on their way to showing us a glimpse of the future of  manufacturing .  A good overview is this concept video of theirs showing you how a rapid assembler  will work.

On the one hand you will have Voxels, the building blocks for making things. A rapid assembler will select and organize these Voxels and build them layer by layer into an object. Because you can select  different Voxels you can give your object lots of different material properties, even properties that have been impossible. Voxels will then be true digital materials.

You could for example make a plastic casing that is weakly magnetic only in certain areas, has different softness and hardness throughout is water permeable only when upside down. Or even develop completely new properties.  Hod & Jon have a page outlining their research here and it mentions creating materials with a negative Poisson ratio.  This would mean making an elastic material that widens as it stretches.

Since a Voxel acts as a basic building block for fabrication billions can be made in series and so the costs of the build material can be kept low while making varieties possible.  Like basic ingredients to a recipe the variety will lie in the unique combinations of these blocks. Because the Voxels have predefined accurate measurements and because they are designed to align the overall accuracy of the process is very high and scalable.  Hod & Jon use the example of a child who might not be very accurate but whose creations are accurate because she is constructing using LEGO bricks.

Currently their experiments have even shown that they can build simple objects from the Voxels. They can then dissolve the binder that holds the Voxels together and then re-use them.

This technology has so much promise that I’m compelled to follow its every move and I hope you do to!

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What is VoxelFab?

I coined the word VoxelFab in response to work by Hod Lipson & Jon Hiller on an idea by Neil Gerhshenfeld.

The basic concept is to have a rapid assembly machine. This machine would scoop up and  millions of individual “Voxels” and then deposit them in an organized fashion in a layer. The machine would add layer upon layer of voxels and in so doing build up an object.

A voxel is currently used as a term for a 3 dimensional pixel. The term is used in 3D modeling and gaming for a virtual pixel with volume. I use it here for a actual 3D dimensional object.  I’m going to try and capitalize Voxel when it refers to the physical Voxel. The dream would be for a voxel on a screen to be an accurate and direct representation of a Voxel in real life. This would seamlessly intertwine design and manufacturing.  Voxels would be universal LEGO blocks for constructing any object.

Since they would be rather small (100 micron) you would need billions of them to build anything. They could then be mass produced on a hereto unprecedented scale. If the basic specifications could be agreed upon many companies could develop ever cheaper ways of manufacturing Voxels making them inexpensive.

The great advantage VoxelFab technology would have over any other manufacturing technology would lie both in the widespread availability of these Voxels and the fact that you could develop different Voxels with different characteristics. You could have a magnetic Voxel for example, a conductive one, a soft one, a hard one etc. The ability for the VoxelFab machine to select and pick up different distributions of these different Voxels and organise them would give you hereto impossible material properties. Hod gave the example of a rubber band that would widen if pulled.You could imagine objects that were magnetic only in some areas or had varying degrees of magnetism, smoothness, hardness, flexibility etc.

A working VoxelFab is still years away, but the exciting possibilities of true digital materials will revolutionize design and manufacturing.

I’m currently involved with 3D printing, a precursor technology for VoxelFab. I think both technologies will bring about a world where anyone can make anything and where anyone can design anything. This is why I follow developments in the field of 3D printing, manufacturing technology, iterative design, generative design, “make”, networked manufacturing and personal production. This blog and the the coining of the term VoxelFab is my attempt at tracking developments leading up to a world where anyone making anything becomes a reality.

Join me on this journey.

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