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Fabbing: A short introduction

After Flash on the Beach and especially the Session by Jared Tarbell I was hugely inspired to get more into the world of fabbing. So I wanted to have a closer look at what this actually means in terms of possibilities opening up, where and how you can do it and then show some more inspirational stuff.

For those of you who haven’t heard of fabbing yet this means crossing the boundaries between the digital and the physical world by using various tools of computer controlled fabrication like 3D-printers, lasercutters, CNC-machines and alike.

What are these and what possibilities do these open to us you might be wondering?

Up until now to create physical things you either needed to do it manually, by hand, in a long and labour intensive process or you had to be in a research department of a university or a huge company to be able to use the tremendously expensive rapid prototyping machines. That has been changing a lot recently making it (almost) as easy as digitally creating. You just design on your computer and then send your designs off to one of the above mentioned tools which then actually execute your designs to become a physical object.

So let’s have a closer look at what these various kinds of tools actually are, how to create using them and finally what the possibilities to get your hands on one are.


As the name suggests 3D-printers are somewhat very similar to normal printers besides the fact that they print in 3D instead of 2D. This works by printing lots of layers of the chosen material on top of each other and filling gaps by various kinds of later removable filling materials. Some more advanced printers can even mix different materials in one printing process. Like that you can even have moving parts being printed right in place like these fully movable cogs show:

To create designs for 3D-printing you need just about any kind of 3D-modeling software available on the market. So besides some special rules you have to keep in mind if you do know how to create 3D models you’re ready to do 3D-printing.

The most usual material for this is some or the other kind of plastic, but in theory also more difficult ones like metal can be possible. Of course this strongly depends of the kind of 3D-printer you are using. Let’s start of by making your mouth water: There are 3D-printers available for as low as 300€. But, now comes the but: These are prototypes being published under an open source license and have to be self-assembled. Examples of this are the RepRap (which is even able to replicate itself) and the MakerBot, both available under GNU GPL.

RepRap v2 ‘Mendel’. Self-replicating fused deposition modelling (FDM) machine

RepRap v2 ‘Mendel’. Self-replicating fused deposition modelling (FDM) machine by Open-source RepRap Project

Of course these cannot compete with commercial products in terms of detail, size and variety of materials. But on the other hand really advanced commercial machines easily cost a 5-digit-value. So what about that then?

There are various ways to get around those limitations if you want proper quality for a reasonable prize:

If you live in a big city there might be one of many so called “fab labs” sprouting just around the corner. For example where I live, in Vienna/Austria, which by far isn’t one of the biggest cities in the world I am aware of at least two of those, being the Metalab and the HappyLab. (Here’s a list of most fab labs all over the world) If you are a student another choice might be the fact that a lot of universities have 3D-printers available, as far as I’ve heard some of them might even be open to the public to some extend.

And finally there are more and more online services appearing where you can just upload your designs, get it produced and shipped directly to your home. One I am aware of that has been recommended to me is shapeways.


Some of you might even have seen one of these in copy shops, mainly in use to cut paper and cardboard. These actually do what they say – the cut stuff with a highly concentrated beam of laser actually burning stuff off. This works for almost any organic material. So you can use it for the above mentioned paper and cardboard as well as for wood, fabric or even stone. The only thing that doesn’t work is metal.

cherry wood with binary computer engraving

cherry wood with binary computer engraving by Jared Tarbell

In addition to cutting stuff of you can also engrave stuff. And all this is really precise which means that you can cut really detailed pieces that then fit together perfectly. And the best thing about it is that compared to 3D-printing it is really easy to set up as it only works in 2D. Actually to a computer it just behaves as if it was a normal printer. Feed it vector data (think print from the vector program of your choice e.g. Illustrator) and it cuts or engraves it into whatever material you feed it. That’s it.

laser engraved sandstone

laser engraved sandstone by Jared Tarbell

One little downside I should mention here just for the sake of completeness: As the cutting edges get actually burned off this leaves traces behind. For example cutting wood leaves the cutting edges being quite dark which you might need to get rid of by manually sanding it.

As far is I know unfortunately there are no similar community powered projects for building your own lasercutter as there are for 3D-printers. Anyway again check out your local fablabs, universities or try an online service like ponoko if you want to try it out.


There are various kinds of these machines. The most common ones are 2D and 2.5D mills. This means you can mill stuff out of various materials either just one layer deep (milling or not milling) or doing various layers to get stuff like terrain maps. One big advantage over laser-engraving is that you don’t get any ugly traces of burning.

by Windell Oskay

Real 3D seems to be possible as well but that appears to be even more complicated than 3D-printing as you always have to be thinking of the fact that the drill head somehow has to be able to come to the place it should be drilling. So things like a sphere in another closed sphere are impossible, where this can be done with 3D-printing.

Admittedly I actually didn’t have a proper look at CNC-Machines yet as they seem to be the most difficult ones to design for, especially the ones being able to work in real 3D space. If I ever find the time to investigate more on that topic I sure will post that information at this very blog.


So finally to get you started thinking about the endless possibilities these tools open up: Some amazing examples of what has already be done:

by Fluid Forms

by Fluid Forms

by Windell Oskay

lased LED light towers

lased LED light towers by Jared Tarbell

spheroids and cubes

spheroids and cubes by Jared Tarbell

Oh and last but not least there is a great book by the even greater Cory Doctorow called “Makers” you should really read to get you thinking about what a future where fabbing has become a normal part of everyday life could look like. It is even free to download in various formats!

So finally what is left to say is that I’m really looking forward to all the amazing stuff you out there will hopefully be creating.