User Friendly

Machine adds new dimension to DIY manufacturing

By Mark Baard
August 1, 2011

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You’ve seen the cliché beginning to a technology story a thousand times: “It sounds like science fiction . . .’’

But the sci-fi lead is irresistible when it comes to describing a gadget that automatically manufactures single copies of everyday objects, like a replicator in Star Trek.

That’s what Thing-O-Matic does: The “personal manufacturing technology’’ from MakerBot Industries LLC extrudes plastic onto a moving surface to form 3-D objects from the bottom up, just as you would decorate a cake with icing from a pastry tube and tip.

What you manufacture with the Thing-O-Matic is limited only by your imagination, or what you can find among the plans posted at MakerBot’s website. The machine also comes with four designs loaded on an SD card.

You might find yourself in need of a hair clip, say, or a lens cap holder for a camera. That, or you might wish to build a bust in honor of yourself for display on your fireplace mantle.

At Mount Holyoke College, computer science professor Audrey Lee-St. John and her students are using the Thing-O-Matic for more serious projects.

Among them, they are producing structures they can use to predict how proteins will move - think drug development.

Lee-St. John also plans to make parts for projects with the roboticist Dan Barry.

Still, using an alternative nozzle that is available for the Thing-O-Matic, Lee-St. John said she would also like to take a shot at frosting cupcakes, after seeing photos of chocolates made with the device.

The Thing-O-Matic costs approximately $2,500, or $1,300 if you purchase a kit and assemble the machine yourself.

That is short money for industrial designers or parents of inventive kids who’d like to start manufacturing their own toys.

Lee-St. John cautions, however, that the Thing-O-Matic might require more tweaking and cajoling than home users would be willing to tolerate.

Mobile hotspots

Bringing Wi-Fi to the open highway

Here’s some good news for moms and dads who frequently haul carloads of bored kids over long distances: Some cars are now rolling off the factory floor already equipped to provide wireless services.

The latest I’ve learned of is the 2012 Audi A6, with an in-vehicle Wi-Fi system that supports up to eight wireless connections simultaneously. The setup requires a data plan with T-Mobile. The carmaker says its A7 model vehicle was the first to provide such a service.

Audi is boasting of several other high-tech perks in the A6, which runs roughly in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, depending on which options you choose.

Audi’s Connect service, for example, dishes out traffic and weather updates and current fuel prices at nearby gas stations.

The A6 also has a built-in touch pad with handwriting recognition for writing out phone numbers and destinations and a heads-up display that projects speed and navigation instructions and other data onto the windshield so drivers do not have to take their eyes off the road. Also, the car’s navigation system works with Google Earth to provide 3-D terrain models and aerial views and to do a better job calculating routes, according to a recent company release.